Matchbox taqueria Clavel packs a punch

At just after 5 p.m. on a Friday, Clavel is packed – almost every table is full, and a line of hungry diners is filling the tiny lobby, lit by a single fluorescent pink bulb. The music playing overhead is competing with the din of conversation. We’re led to a comfortable table in the back of the dining room.

Clavel looks and feels like a low-key, hole-in-the-wall bar, glammed up a bit by its neon pink sign, string lights above the sidewalk seating, and pale pink awning. It sits on the corner of what is an otherwise unoccupied block, giving it a secluded feel. But the crowd makes it clear this is no hidden gem.

Fairy lights criss cross overhead in the dining room, and leafy plants and cacti perch on every surface that’s not reserved for eating. Our waitress walked us through the menu: Clavel offers an array of tempting tacos, but any taco filling can be turned into a quesadilla, a mixta, or a torta. She recommended two to three tacos per person – reasonable for even the hungriest guest, as you won’t want to miss their appetizers.

Speaking of apps, lets talk about the queso fundido – a screaming hot cast iron skillet of molten cheese topped with salty, spicy chorizo and served with a basket of chips, guacamole, and frijoles puercos (kind of like refried beans). You might burn your tongue but you won’t care. It’s creamy, salty, gooey, savory, and at the bottom is a chewy crust of cheese that makes it even better. It will make you scoff at anything else you eat that tries to call itself queso.

Just as impressive are Clavel’s ceviches. We ordered two of the four: atun con piña and ceviche Sinaloense. The former is a tuna and pineapple number, plated beautifully on a fresh tostada. It was bright, tender, and fruity. The latter is a vibrant bowl of shrimp, tomato, avocado, cucumber, and serrano chiles (which WILL set your mouth on fire if you’re not careful and eat too many in one bite. Lesson learned.). Like the queso, it’s served with their lightly salted house chips, which are thick enough to stand up to the dips.

Onto tacos. One of the most important things to note: Clavel makes their own corn tortillas. They’re tender and flavorful. One bite and you’ll think, “Yes, this is what a tortilla tastes like,” and then wonder what those tortilla-like things you ate up until this point were. The tacos arrive open face on round metal platters; it’s casual and feels authentic.

Ever since a trip to New Mexico years ago, I’ve been itching to find corn fungus on a menu, and I found it in the huitlacoche taco. The slightly smoky, earthy flavors from the tomatoes and epazote were well balanced with the slight sweetness from the corn and briny kick of the queso cotija sprinkled on top, but the whole thing felt a little lacking. I found the missing piece of the puzzle with a drizzle of the delicately acidic green sauce on the table. The pollo en mole verde was a satisfying and tasty combo of bits of chicken in a mild green mole with melty cheese.

The standout of the whole meal was the cochinita pibil taco. The house specialty of tender pork dripped with orange juices. Bitter oranges and achiote lent it a subtle flavor that morphed from earthy to sweet to slightly fruity with every bite. Plated with just a pile of neon pink pickled onions, the cochinita pibil is a reminder that often times the simplest dishes are the best.

Still somehow not full, we sampled the tres leches cake and flan. The flan was a sliver of delicate, creamy custard shellacked with a rich, deeply browned caramel. The tres leches, dusted with cocoa powder, was creamy and airy, with every crumb soaked with milk.

Clavel is the kind of place you wish would be less crowded so you could go for a quick taco fix whenever the mood strikes. But at the same time, food this good should be a human right, and everyone should partake. I guess it’s the price we have to pay.