When I visited L.A.’s Salazar in Silver Lake last year, I could only hang my head in despair: New York City had nothing quite like the outdoor Mexican barbecue, sprawled among the trees and swooping arterial roadways, with the wafting smell of wood smoke and charred meat. Well now we have something like it, with added advantages.
Occupying the former Pines space, a rib’s throw from the Gowanus Canal, Claro bills itself as Oaxaca-inspired. If it were a more pure Oaxacan restaurant, it would fulfill a longstanding gap in our Mexican restaurant options. It’s not, but at least it tries, offering two outstanding moles out of seven. But the best part of Claro is not its adherence to Oaxacan recipes, but its excellent execution, and specifically its use of smoke.
The focus of the fenced backyard — an exceedingly pleasant space under a trellis hung with grape vines — is a wood-burning hearth. That hearth is deployed smoking the pork ribs that are deboned, shredded, and heaped on a tortilla-like flatbread in one version of memela ($15), along with crumbled fresh cheese. The effect is smoky and stunning, with pungency provided by a chile de arbol salsa. I could eat these all day.
The aguachile ($15) was just as good. This soupy ceviche of shrimp and cucumber comes in a tart, cold broth that explodes with flavor. And once the solid parts have been eaten, the fluid deserves to be lapped to the last drop.
Another menu triumph is a mole amarillo ($23) that features chicken layered with green beans and potatoes in an orange-yellow sauce. The crunchy green beans overpower the bird, but the dish is good nonetheless, especially when the sauce is sopped with blandas ($2 each), which are made from Mexican corn and nixtamalized on the premises.
The only dish a friend and I didn’t dig on our first visit was the tlayuda ($21), an uneven round masa cracker somewhat like a pizza, topped with a variety of ingredients, like refried beans, chorizo, and cheese. Alas, the rabbit salpicon on top, in addition to including too little meat, was more like a French salad, driven by bitter frisee and a sharp vinaigrette and lacking chiles.
Regardless, Claro is one of the more interesting restaurants I’ve wandered into over the last year. It’s a project of Union Square Café veteran chefs, T. J. Steele and Chad Shaner. Designer J.T. Stewart has really have captured the feel of an outdoor eatery in Mexico.
Dishes I have yet to try include the goat barbacoa for two ($42), a turkey mole ($24), and a lobster tostada ($16). I thoroughly enjoyed the cocktails, too, a short list mainly driven by mezcal, Oaxaca’s signature spirit. I’m certainly looking forward to my next visit.