Memelas, mezcal margaritas and other Oaxacan delights to order at Claro
Claro‘s doorway exhales the aroma of slow-simmering pork ribs, with a whisper of anise and chiles beckoning guests to come inside. This little Gowanus spot has been known for its breezy backyard and high-minded yet well-grounded Oaxacan fare from chef T.J. Steele, who spent years living part-time in Oaxaca. Since he rolled out a weekend brunch menu in March, Claro has become the best place to get a midday masa fix—and one of the hardest places in the neighborhood to book a reservation.
The menu changes from day to night and from season to season, but the yellowfin tostada has been spotted on both the brunch and dinner menus this spring, and it’s the kind of dish that makes you want to say a little prayer. The smoky heat of a chile pepper called pasilla Oaxaqueña kisses the dish’s dreamy guacamole, while juicy, sweet-tart blood orange amplifies the freshness of the ruby-red raw tuna. It’s all layered on a crisp house-made tostada and sprinkled with crackly flavor-bombs of chicharrón. Praise be!
In the morning, pair it with a smooth Aguila Dragón, a tequila-mezcal cocktail tamed with grapefruit, oolong, and peach. In the evening, go for a Reina Carmesi (pictured above), a chile-rimmed, clove-spiked mezcal drink with a flavor as bright as its fuschia hue. Or go with the unbeatable house margarita, which we recommend ordering with mezcal, a pleasantly smoky replacement for the typical tequila.
For both brunch and dinner, the backbone of Claro’s gluten-free menu is the heirloom corn that Chef Steele sources from Oaxaca and molds into crisp tostadas, soft and pliable tortillas, and thicker, richer memelas, which cradle some of the biggest flavors on the menu. The chorizo memela (pictured above), piled high with queso fresco and fringy cilantro, has more of a brunchy sausage-and-potatoes appeal, while the similar looking spicy pork memela infuses the shredded pork ribs with hot chile de arbol and the deep sweetness of anise and maybe a touch of cinnamon, topped with a cooling crumble of farmer’s cheese. The Marina Sabina memela offers meaty, umami-rich mushrooms, with a rich goat cheese crema. Your best bet is to bring some friends and to order all three.
We can also thank that Oaxacan corn for the once-crunchy chips that are saturated with deliciousness and turned into insanely craveable chilaquiles for brunch. The dish includes a generous and holy heap of tasajo, impossibly tender, paper-thin slices of grilled beef. The chilaquiles alone are worth a weekend trip, even if you need to travel solo and crush a plate of them at the bar, where stools don’t require reservations.
Only the piled-high dinner salad and the moles show up without a corn disc, though the server may rightfully recommend ordering some tortillas on the side. You’ll want to sop up every drop of deep, dark, rich mole negro offered at dinnertime, though the short rib served with it during our latest visit was a bit on the dry side. Still, we can’t wait to return and eat it all over again in the backyard, which has an opening date set in May, and where all the summertime specialties will be delivered directly from the open-air, wood-fired oven. Sipping mezcal cocktails on Claro’s turquoise outdoor tables, it’s hard to imagine a more blessed place to be.