Food & Drink

A Love Letter to Clavel

Sitting inside Clavel feels like the sunburnt sidewalks and beaches where I became obsessed with Mexican food are just outside my front door, metaphorically if not actually.
—Illustration by Noemi Fabra

Home Again

A love letter to Clavel.

My true love affair with food began while sitting on a sunburnt East Los Angeles sidewalk next to a taco truck—a paper plate of tacos on my knees.

Of course, I loved eating, cooking, and dining out long before that; I went to cooking school and became a food writer. But there was a magic to those tacos, constructed just before delivery and consumption, that stitched me perfectly to that moment. It was a composition of place and dinner that was utterly sublime.

So, when I moved to Baltimore, my mother’s hometown, the first thing I sought out was a taco truck. And after finding that—Tacos Jalisco, parked outside a Catholic church in Fells Point—I looked for a place to stay awhile, which led me pretty quickly to Clavel, Lane Harlan and Carlos Raba’s phenomenal Remington taquería.

Clavel is a Mexican food palace—a taquería, mezcaleria, and nixtamaleria (where corn is traditionally processed for masa) all under one roof. It is as close to driving to Mexico (which I once did, driving from L.A. to Tijuana for chicken-neck tacos and then down the coast to Ensenada, just for a raw clam and uni tostada) as you can get within the confines of this city.

At Clavel, first you will wait in line, not unlike one does at the best street taco stands, talking to the people waiting with you about tacos, itself a kind of appetizer. Then you’ll be seated in the lovely, lofty space, strung with lights like a rowhome alley.

The aquachile, raw seafood torqued with lime and chiles, is transcendent, as is the ooey queso fundido, melted into its own cast-iron pan.

But you’re here for the tacos, so order as many as you can. They come in many iterations: cochinta pibil, carnitas, barbacoa, lengua,  chiles and corn, sirloin tips, mushrooms and huitlacoche, fried cod, and a pile of shrimp and cheese and Anaheim chiles dubbed an al gobernadora. It’s worth filling a table—with people, with plates—so you can try them all.

Sitting inside Clavel—lifting warm, just-made tortillas from a basket, spooning cured fish from a pool of chile-spiked broth, forking up bites of esquites, and then digging into a plate loaded with lamb barbacoa tacos—it feels like the sunburnt sidewalks and beaches where I became obsessed with Mexican food are just outside the front door, metaphorically if not actually.

Of course, outside is not East L.A. or Raba’s home state of Sinaloa, but Remington, where my cousins have lived for two decades. And thus Baltimore, where I chose to live, where my father now also lives, where my great-grandparents came to live over a century ago, and which is now more home than California ever was.

Somehow, eating cochinita pibil tacos while my family orders another round from the mezcaleria, I always seem to fall in love, again, with both food and place. And the tres leches cake doesn’t hurt either.

This is one of five deeply personal Love Letters—reflections on restaurants that hold a special spot in our hearts—from our 2024 Best Restaurants list. View more of our picks, here.