Oaxaca on the Gowanus: The Charms and Chiles of Claro

If you love Oaxacan food and live in New York City, it helps to be mobile. About half a million Mexican-Americans live here, too, and while more have been arriving from Oaxaca in recent years, very few have opened restaurants.

The hunting is better north of town. On a free day, you could head upriver to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the capital of the Hudson Valley’s Oaxacan community. My own favorite destination until this winter was even farther away, a trim, bright little spot in Kingston called Just For You. Last summer I had a memorable bowl of thick crema de elote and hunks of goat stewed with guajillo chiles. But one of the owners had moved to the United States illegally in 1999 and had recently moved back to Mexico under threat of deportation; the restaurant has closed for now.

Closer to home, you can make your way to La Morada, in the South Bronx, hoping the elusive mole blanco will be simmering in the kitchen that day, and ready to settle for one of the more easily spotted moles if it is not. You might go to central Brooklyn for the tamal steamed in a banana leaf, or the little fried masa pockets called tetelas, at La Loba Cantina, in Kensington.

In September, a new choice appeared on Third Avenue in Brooklyn, between the verdant shores of the Gowanus Canal and the foothills of Park Slope. Called Claro, it is run by one of the owners of Freek’s Mill, a nearby restaurant where the servers wear gingham shirts and talk up the virtues of the wine list made up almost entirely of gamay and chenin blanc. His partner is also the chef, T. J. Steele, a veteran of Union Square Cafe and Tía Pol who has the word TACO tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and MASA on those of his left. Those two related themes are continued in ink drawings that run up his arms, across his torso and down to his feet.

Claro, in other words, is not where you go for Oaxacan recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Home-style soups and stews are rare. So is cooked fish. On the other hand, Mr. Steele has given himself liberty to work with ingredients that might furrow the average Mexican grandmother’s brow, like kale and sunchokes. Although he has lived part-time in Oaxaca City for more than a decade, he still thinks like a New York chef.

Photo

Behind the bar is a selection of Oaxacan mezcals including El Buho, imported by Mr. Steele.

Credit
Gabriela Herman for The New York Times

But as his head-to-toe artwork suggests, Mr. Steele has a tendency to go all in. This is, as it happens, the only way to make the moles that are the pride of Oaxaca. The moles at Claro are riveting: The ground nuts and dried spices, the garlic and onions all seem to bring out the personalities of the chiles — sometimes fruity, sometimes vegetal — while tamping down their heat. He keeps their bitterness in check, too.

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