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.
Regarding the hot stuff, the chef is great with his tongue—beef tongue, that is. The soft lengua de res tacos, topped with meticulously diced raw onion and a verdant salsa, stay true to their origin but get a Brooklynized sheen, much like the rest of the items on the menu. While almost too spicy to enjoy thanks to the pickled chilies, the unexpected tostada combo of octopus and bacon renders mirroring textures that blend harmoniously on a crunchy tortilla.
The real scene-stealers here are the moles. Revered like a French hollandaise or an Italian ragu, a superb mole blends dozens of ingredients—chilies, nuts, chocolate, among others— into a concoction no sauce can parallel. Both the tender short ribs coated in mole negro and the succulent pork blanketed with a mole rojo are marvels of complex flavor and refined technique.
The heat lingers into dessert, where a warm mole cake (get this over the goat-milk–chocolate and caramel number) brings a sweet spice to dense, molten chocolate. The meal ends on a satisfying note, but your mouth will be just like that woman in the mural: on fire.