People from California are constantly lamenting the lack of decent Mexican food on this side of the Sierra Nevadas. My boyfriend Mike is one of them. Usually he complains that it’s too bland, or the vegetables are wilted and brown — nothing like the waxy, rotund flora that he gets out in the Golden State. We’ve been to plenty of Mexican restaurants all across Brooklyn, but nothing has satisfied his hankering for a decent quesadilla.
Until Chavella’s, that is. The restaurant’s chef-owner, Arturo Leonar, honed his skills under Calle Ocho’s Alex Garcia. Although Calle Ocho’s thrust is Nuevo Latino cuisine and Chavella’s serves Mexican, Leonar still retains Garcia’s modern take on traditional fare.
Walking down Classon Avenue on a recent Saturday night, I was struck by the attractive, unassuming facade of the restaurant. The front of the small space is covered in lime green tiles, and locals carrying takeout were streaming in and out of the tiny restaurant.
Once inside, everything happens in the same moderately sized room — the open kitchen is cordoned off from the dining area by a half-wall with brown-slatted blinds. Couples, young families and tables of twentysomethings dominated the relaxed crowd. And since Chavella’s is still awaiting its liquor license, many of its patrons were enjoying Coronas from the bodega next door.
The other thing that almost everyone in the room was enjoying was Chavella’s guacamole. The brilliant creamy green of the avocado was peppered with chunky pico de gallo, and instead of the usual yawn-inducing fried chips, the guac was served in a stone mortar with steaming warm corn tortillas.
“That actually looks amazing,” my boyfriend said, shocked with his own admission and, as we dug into the green mound, I saw his skeptical expression change into a grin.
The guacamole, however, would pale in comparison to what came next: “Pepito,” a toasted baguette with black bean spread, Oaxaca cheese and pico de gallo sprinkled on top. Although on the surface, “Pepito” seemed like a fancy, Mexican grilled cheese sandwich, the dusky flavor of the black bean spread on a small baguette round combined with precisely melted cheese and the crisp tomato, onion and cilantro made for a near perfect combination. My boyfriend tried to take the last piece and I nearly stabbed him with my fork.
It was wise not to, since we still had eating to do. Next up was an order of “Elotes Callejeros,” grilled corn slathered in chipotle mayo and cotija cheese. Generally I find mayo heavy and foul, but the kicked-up flavor of the chipotle made the dusty orange-colored spread taste light and delicious. Across the table, Mike was licking his plate clean.
After three appetizers, we split the hefty “Plato Don,” a round fajita-style platter of chipotle chicken and grilled steak, for our main course. Tossed onto one of the warm tortillas it was served with, the shredded chicken was tender and perfectly seasoned, but I was disappointed by the steak. Not only was it bland, but it was as tough as the chicken was tender. After the amazing appetizers, the pedestrian steak was a let down, but we devoured the chicken and the rest of the fixings (grilled vegetables, rice, beans and more guacamole) despite our now-bulging bellies.
The small dessert menu — flan and rice pudding only — lacked pizzazz. With the heaping portions we were served for dinner, it would have taken a lot more than custard for us to order another course.
And, as we walked towards the car, the California boy grudgingly admitted Chavella’s was “damn good. Actually, the best Mexican I’ve had in Brooklyn.”
Chavella’s (732 Classon Ave., between Park and Prospect places in Prospect Heights) accepts cash only. Entrees: $7–$12. The restaurant offers lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Subway: C to Franklin Avenue; 2 and 3 to Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum. For information, call (718) 622-3100.