Let’s talk about Mex. In the city that’s supposed to have it all, finding authentic regional Mexican food is surprisingly difficult without schlepping deep into the Bronx or Queens. Enter T.J. Steele, the part-time Oaxacan resident and full-time chef who’s bringing these foreign flavors to a compact cocina that falls somewhere between off-the-beaten-path street food and a hipster Brooklyn locale. At first glance, Claro looks like the spot where all the cool kids hang. Everything is authentic, from the rustic clay plates and imported blue-and-white tiles adorning the bar to the extensive mezcal list and wood-fired comal (griddle), where you can see the cooks toasting masa tortillas made with heirloom corn, ground in-house. After eyeing your surroundings, you’re bound to end up fixated on Steele: He’s covered with tattoos inked by the same artist who drew the large mural on the wall of a naked woman being cooked in a cauldron by goats. The meal begins with bugs. To be clear, you won’t be eating creepy-crawlies of the Fear Factor variety, but grasshoppers do make a cameo in a vibrant spring salad of crisp vegetables. Ground up into a tangy dressing, the chapulines don’t add much flavor, but they offer you the opportunity to brag to your friends about your edible escapade with the popular Oaxacan ingredient.
Walk into a New York bar and ask five bartenders for a michelada, and you’ll likely wind up with five entirely different drinks. That’s because micheladas (the confusing umbrella term for beer-based, lime-spritzed Mexican cocktails) are one of the most readily modified recipes in booze. Remove the tomato juice, and it’s a chelada; doctor it with clam stock, and it’s a clamato. Whatever you want to call it, the savory cooler is popping up across Gotham, with bars and New York restaurants stretching the traditions of the South of the Border staple.
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