On the menu at Clavel, a new Mexican-inspired establishment in Remington, there are seven kinds of tacos, a quesadilla, a couple of ceviche preparations, a torta and a few dips like guacamole and frijoles puercos, a puree of beans with chorizo and pickled jalapeno.
There is also a Mexican hot cheese-and-bean dip, the queso fundido, that you might find yourself thinking about for days afterward.
It is a small menu. And Clavel identifies itself not as a restaurant but as a mezcaleria and taqueria, which means, in effect, that it's the kind of place where you go, not for a dinner, but for a snack and a drink, or two.
That hasn't stopped Clavel from being packed to its pretty rafters every time I've stopped by, on unofficial business, which has been not infrequently. Here's the thing: I love this place.
I adore the four kinds of meat tacos, which should be ordered all at once, and then again. The cochinita pibil, the prettiest one, is pork that's slow-cooked with bitter oranges and achiote peppers, and topped with pickled red onions. The silkiest one is the lengua, shredded beef tongue, served with Clavel's fresh salsa verde. The others are terrific, too: barbacoa, which is beef and pork roasted with poblano and pasilla peppers, and chambarete, which is beef with dry chilies and spices.
Like most of the food at Clavel, the tacos are served on round metal trays lined with thin white paper. An assortment of meat tacos are garnished minimally and strikingly with sliced cucumbers and a single thin radish slice.
The tacos are accompanied by an array of homemade pepper sauces, and the tortillas, which Clavel makes every morning, are soft but sturdy and actually taste like something — they taste like corn.
You inhale these tacos in Clavel's plain, bright, sun-streaked dining room, where most of the seating is at community tables made from salvaged wood or at small white-topped tables with fixed benches, which were salvaged from the property's previous tenant, a neighborhood tavern named Corky's.
Rows of small bare light bulbs are strung overhead, and the decor is minimal — ficus trees and potted succulents on shelves, and the occasional hanging basket.
There is additional seating at a long bar, which is separated from the main dining room by a half-wall; on counter stools facing Clavel's open kitchen; and at sidewalk tables. Know that seating is first come, first served, and that the restaurant does not take reservations. Arriving early, or showing up after the traditional dinner hour, is a very good idea. Like I said, the joint is jumping.
Clavel is from Lane Harlan. She's the enterprising mind behind W.C. Harlan, the scrumptious speakeasy-inspired lounge located a few blocks away in Remington. The lounge is elegantly and precisely decorated, with old-time knickknacks and bric-a-brac, to the point of feeling art-directed, and if I'm in the wrong mood, I can feel like I'm an extra in someone else's movie.
By contrast, Clavel feels natural and organic. The inspiration for the easygoing, casual atmosphere may be the taquerias of Mexico, particularly those in the state of Sinaloa, but the wonderful thing about Clavel is how authentic it feels unto itself, and to the scrappy surrounding Remington streets, which have a mix of light industry and solemn-looking rowhouses.
Authenticity is a tricky topic. My general stance is not caring whether food is authentic or not. I only do care, and react strongly, when a restaurant makes claims of authenticity it doesn't back up.
Harlan co-owns Clavel with her husband, Matthew Pierce, and the restaurant's young chef, Carlos Raba, who has made sure that the food stays true to his native Sinaloa, which is in northwestern Mexico. In the early days at Clavel, Raba's aunt took an extended visit from Mexico to supervise the production of tortillas, which are available for takeout purchase.
There are other things beside tacos, small things mostly, but they add up to a full and satisfying dinner. There are two ceviche preparations. The refreshing Sinaloense presents lime-and-chili cured shrimp with tomato, serrano peppers, cucumber and onion in a crisp tostada shell. Eating the aguachile, a plate of butterflied shrimp dressed a spicy cilantro pesto, makes you feel like you're sitting on the coast off Mazatlan.
La Solitaria is Clavel's version of the torta, a robust Mexican sandwich, which it tops with slow-roasted pork, avocado, lettuce and tomato. Dressed with a hot chipotle sauce, it's served on crusty bread known as pan bolillo, the Mexican adaptation of the French baguette.
You can snack on fresh guacamole, or frijoles puercos. There are, beside the four meat tacos, two seafood and one vegetarian options. The best among these is the pescado, which featured pan-seared mahi mahi and a bracing cabbage slaw made by Hex Ferments, a local producer of fermented items.
And, there's the queso fundido, the bubbling hot queso dip, served in a skillet. The goal with this dish is to keep scooping, with just-salty-enough tortilla chips, down to the bottom of the skillet where the crisped cheese bits can be scraped off the bottom.
Clavel features an impressive mezcal program, along with an intriguing cocktail list. Consider trying the Santa Sandia, a mezcal-based cocktail with fresh watermelon juice, agave nectar and serrano peppers.
Or just order a $15 bucket of six Pacifico bottles of beer, and come back some other time for the mezcal experience.
Clavel, which means "carnation" in Spanish, is in full bloom this summer.
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