The Power of Branding: Claudia’s, Brooklyn’s Guatemalan Restaurant

The Power of Branding: Claudia’s, Brooklyn’s Guatemalan Restaurant
Interior of bar at Claudia’s. Courtesy of Claudia’s.

EAST WILLIAMSBURG — One word: authenticity! That was the mantra that siblings Mario and Claudia Lopez took to heart late last year when they re-launched their hole-in-the-wall spot C.Lo Cafe in East Williamsburg into a bar with a focus on their Guatemalan roots.

The man behind the transformation is Rafaello VanCouten, an ambitious, Brooklyn-by-way-of-Guyana restaurateur. He met Claudia’s husband by hiring him for HVAC work for Brooklyn Allied Bars & Restaurants, an industry group VanCouten helps run on the side. He now co-owns the spot with the siblings after the rebrand.

“He knew exactly what we wanted to do,” Claudia told Bklyner, her passionate voice detailing the restaurant’s latest incarnation as the culmination of a life-long dream that had started when she grew up in the neighborhood after moving to the United States in the early 1980s.

When Mario and Claudia offered to partner with VanCouten, he told them he wanted the C.Lo Cafe to only serve Guatemalan food, which he had just discovered on a monthlong trip to Guatemala on behalf of a coffee company called Eleva.

Before they opened their own place, Claudia managed a Le Pain Quotidien while Mario was a chef at a Manhattan-based burger restaurant. They opened the C. Lo Cafe as just another grab-and-go American spot in a gentrifying neighborhood. They did well enough to open a second location in 2018–which is still around with the old name on the Ridgewood-Bushwick border.

“It was mainly American, just with a trace from Guatemala,” Claudia says of the menu at the original C.Lo Cafe, which still found a place for small thin bottles of Picamas, a popular Guatemalan brand of hot sauce. “I wanted to slowly introduce our culture.”

New York had almost no Guatemalan restaurants that were not, as Robert Sietsema wrote in Eater in 2017, “tucked away in Jamaica, Queens.” There was a total culinary vacuum and, in it, VanCouten saw an opportunity. He also suggested giving the C.Lo Cafe a folksier moniker: Claudia’s.

The new Claudia’s still seats about 30, but the new menu is built of big, elegant plates that befit the menu’s new luxurious cardstock. As part of the rebrand, Mario Lopez was made its newly established executive chef — before he did not have a title.

On the menu, you’ll find thick rich stews with traditional names like Pepian de Gallina and Jocón de Pollo. These are served alongside dishes like Casaba Salmon, a platter of the fish that VanCouten said he nicked off the menu of a high-end restaurant in Guatemala City called Sublime Restaurante. If you stay long enough, you will be recommended a rough-yet-delectable ice cream sandwich made with churros and drizzled with chocolate.

Pollo campero with a side of yuca fries. Andrew Karpan/Bklyner.

“It was an easy task to have them come back to Guatemalan food,” VanCouten told Bklyner.

He wanted Mario and Claudia to cook from their roots, to use recipes that had been handed down by grandmothers. This, he felt, was the restaurant they had wanted to run all along and, the vast majority of the dishes on the menu indeed come from dishes that Mario and Claudia had been making for themselves their entire life.

VanCouten had noticed the five-star Yelp reviews the C.Lo Cafe was getting from its regulars with its largely recognizable Latinx and American fare, but he knew they needed a hook to lure the food blog crowd.

And the newly Guatemalan Claudia’s worked, VanCouten says. He cites notations in Time Out, and Edible Brooklyn, the latter of which applauded the new menu’s refusal to translate the names of dishes as an authentically educational experience. And just a few weeks ago, Eater put them on their latest hot brunch list, lauding and italicizing the chirmol at “one of the city’s rare full-service Guatemalan restaurants.”

“I couldn’t be more stoked,” VanCouten says.

VanCouten cuts a striking figure, his thick-rimmed glasses and a baseball cap evoking nothing less than a Spike Lee of the Brooklyn indie food scene. He speaks of trends with the savvy intelligence of a man who, elsewhere, also co-owns a number of Brooklyn bars that include Midnights, the Parton-themed Dolly’s Swing And Dive, and a bar in Bushwick called the Honore Club.

Unsurprisingly, he turned Claudis’s into a bar, too, designing a cocktail menu with names like Coconut Cartel and Tecun Uman, the latter named after a Mayan ruler who VanCouten says he learned was “like the highest god in the kitchen culture.”

The walls sport a bright mural depicting the hotel he stayed at in Antigua, painted by Matthew Harrell, a close friend of VanCouten’s who used to work with him at one of his first gigs as a server at the recently-shuttered Blue Water Grill. The mural shows the hotel, along with an ancient church, under the shroud of a doomy volcano. It was there that VanCouten discovered the Guatemala-based fried chicken chain Pollo Campero, whose work informed Claudia’s take on the chicken sandwich, which Eater said was now “one of NYC’s most appealing new fried chicken sandwiches.”

Interior of Claudia’s. Courtesy of Claudia’s.

VanCouten wanted the new Claudia’s to pop. “We live in an Instagram world,” he says right before pointing to a small wall of plastic plants that surround a handy totem of Tecun Uman.

Its bar is also among the few places in New York, VanCouten says, where you can find Gallo, a popular brand of pale lager that Claudia’s imports from Guatemala.

For Claudia, the new bright colors have stirred conversation–the streets of Antigua are often recognized by guests in the know and it compliments a menu interested in introducing Guatemala to the neighborhood’s changing crowd.

“It feels great when people ask questions about what chirmol is,” Claudia says, adding she greatly enjoys talking to customers about the menu, “because these aren’t just recipes, every dish has a story of where it comes from in my life.”

VanCouten also speaks eagerly of the connection between the food and his recent trip to Guatemala, which he describes as a land of rugged authenticity that he was happy to bring to Claudia’s.

“[Guatemalan] People eat [with] purpose,” he said.

Visit Claudia’s at 39 Bushwick Avenue. It’s open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, or dinner from 8:00 a.m to 11:00 p.m. They also offer brunch on the weekends from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.