We've heard nothing but good things from critics and friends alike about Lane Harlan's new taqueria and mezcal bar, Clavel (225 W. 23rd St.,  848-2849). With its menu not yet available online, we had to go in blind and hope there would be something vegetarian—a taqueria has to be able to make some amalgam of beans and cheese, right?
On a recent Friday night, we joined a growing crowd to get drinks from the bar while waiting for a table—did we mention it doesn't take reservations? A half-hour wait for one of the charming outdoor picnic tables felt like nothing at all as we sipped mezcal at the bar.
The obvious starter choice was the queso fundido ($12), a cast-iron skillet of melted cheese. As the menu helpfully notes, it comes with chorizo, but it can be ordered sans. Our dining companion asked for it on the side, always happy to snarf down a little bowl of meat to cancel out our abstinence, but the request was denied. The first few bites of cheese were delicious, greasy and gooey in a way that only melted cheese can be. But it was the last dregs on the bottom that impressed us, crisping up into something like a chip made entirely of cheese. Yum. Small dishes of guacamole and refried beans came on the side. The guac was bright and very citrus-y, a nice accompaniment to the ultra-greasy cheese puck. The beans, on the other hand, were mashed and the dish was "definitely filled with meat," per the warning of our companion.
The rajas vegetarianas consisted of silky poblano chiles, sliced onion, and sweet corn tossed in a light coating of crema. It's available in either the form of tacos ($3 per) or a quesadilla ($6), so we of course tried both.
The tacos were built upon house-made corn tortillas, tasting very much like they had been freshly made out of real corn. Now, we know the idea of Clavel is that it's less of a dinner joint and more of a snacks-and-sips joint, but the tacos were just not very filling. Though they were diminutive, it was not a problem with the size. It's just that, while deliciously composed, there's not a whole lot of substance to a few roasted veggies. We found ourselves wishing it had been balanced out with a handful of beans. A little protein to give it the chew that the meat tacos seemed to have, and of course to stand up to extended mezcal tasting.
Our quesadilla was more substantial, on a larger flour tortilla and with a healthy (read: not actually healthy) helping of chihuahua cheese melted in with the corn and pepper filling. We still yearned for beans, but not quite as much. The cheese helped fill the void, as it so often does in vegetarian food. (Sorry vegans.)
The minimalist accompaniment of a lime wedge with radish and cucumber slices was perfect, the acidity and crunch having a very balancing effect. It almost lets you pretend you didn't eat a skillet full of cheese as an appetizer. And if you like a bit of a heat that doesn't compromise on flavor, the red chile sauce was particularly good—you're not using it to prove anything, but there's a definite kick.
Clavel's vegetarian offerings, though limited, were incredibly delicious. We will be going back to eat and drink there again for sure . . . just probably not when we're starving. Yes, it's meant to be a taqueria for a few nibbles rather than a place for a hearty dinner. But please, Clavel, can you toss a few frijoles in with those rajas?
The Vegetarian Option tells you all you need to know about going meatless in Baltimore in the places you'd least expect it.