The Dish: Clavel put Carlos Raba on the map. Nana is a chance to build his legacy.
by Matti Gellman
Published January 31 in The Baltimore Banner
When asked about his restaurant’s recent nomination for a James Beard Award, chef Carlos Raba shrugged.
On Thursday, the Clavel co-owner ran circles around his new kitchen, preparing to open Nana, a long-awaited taqueria in Towson. A purple cap marked for his hometown baseball team in Sinaloa, Mexico, hid the sweat on his brow.
He smiled at the question. The James Beard Awards honor culinary excellence, and Clavel, his Remington bar and taqueria, had just been named a semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar category for the third time.
To Raba, who earned a nod himself for Best Chef: Mid Atlantic in 2022, it’s not enough; there’s a legacy to be built, and, if all goes as planned, a Mexican beach house to buy.
Raba fled his home in Mexico at 16 for safety in the United States. At times, he and his older brother were homeless, working odd jobs around Baltimore, including stints as a fishmonger and a shoe salesman in order to pay rent. A career in cooking seemed improbable.
Now 40, Raba is no longer hustling in the background. He wants Baltimore’s attention.
His new eatery, which opens Wednesday after more than a year and a half of delays, is named for his great-grandmother. Nana is far from a fancy, experimental concept — it’s a small shop with an open kitchen and framed family photos hanging on the wall. Brightly painted tiles match the colors of an old photograph, where the sun is setting on a Sinaloa street.
Customers can choose to stuff tacos, quesadillas or Mexican-style sandwiches, known as tortas, with four different fillings, from carne asada to the vegan cauliflower y papa. Fire-roasted chickens can be slathered in either al pastor smoky pineapple and chile marinade or a bichis marinade made with garlic and fresh herbs. The menu also includes a hot dog wrapped in bacon, tomato, onions, mayonnaise and avocado sauce, a choice of sides, and either churros or rice pudding for dessert.
For Raba, it’s a means of honoring his past, an ode to the late-night taquerias that served as a respite for his family and sparked his culinary curiosity. He aims to make the space a community fixture — somewhere kids can escape to find comfort or that parents can lean on for a safe, affordable meal.
“I want to be able to help more kids,” he said. “And I want to be that person that, my daughter’s with me, and people say, ‘Oh, you’re the daughter of Carlos Raba, good, the door is open for you.”
Even as a child, Raba’s food reflected his access to opportunity.
After moving to Culiacán in northwest Mexico with his mother and brother, meals were simple. They never ate black beans, Raba said, long considered a “peasant food.” The family was well off, cooking up pinto beans and occasionally mixing it with pork for frijoles.
They gathered together — uncles, aunts and grandparents — for barbecues stocked with grilled meats like carne asada, along with grains and corn-based dishes. But no one made chicken like Raba’s grandmother, who also taught him how to make flour tortillas buttery soft, he said.
At night when the kids grew rowdy, Raba and his eight cousins would pile into his uncle’s truck and drive to the taqueria. It was not a restaurant, Raba said — rather a spot to be free for a moment.
“You go, get some asada, some rice, some beans, any other sides, then go home and set the table.”
But home would change for Raba. His mother, Luz Aida Salmon, became a prominent voice in Sinaloan journalism who exposed political corruption. As the neighborhood became violent, her coverage and opinions made her a threat. The family soon sought political asylum in North America, first landing in Washington, D.C., then a homeless shelter in Detroit, before finally settling in Silver Spring.
At Montgomery Blair High School, his world shrunk. Being Mexican left him feeling like a target, and he started to fight his peers instead of making new friends. He tried asking a girl on the soccer team to their prom; she mocked his accent.
“But was I looking for friendships? No. I needed to hustle to be who I am,” Raba said.
He worked at Subway three hours a day after school to pay rent and sent the rest of the money to his mother, who had returned to Sinaloa for treatment after her health declined.
A Salvadoran family helped him and his brother get on their feet, but still, Raba missed the barbecues. He started eating black beans, turning them into a soup with days-old carne asada.
He made sandwiches at work and got free lunches at school. Most meals now involved an egg; it was affordable. He coated them in cheddar cheese and claimed to have found heaven when he paired them with a hot dog rolled in a flour tortilla.
By 18, he worked six days a week, making extra money as a shoe salesman at Nordstrom. With his first big check, he bought a Volkswagen Citi Golf car, fit with rims and a sound system that shook the back seat.
“My accent didn’t matter anymore,” he said.
As the money continued to roll in, his food changed. While managing staff and inventory at local grocery stores, Raba would grill fresh carne asada, holding barbecues for friends at the home he owned. He experimented with ceviche and won the praise of a DJ, Lane Harlan. She would later convince Raba to help her open Clavel, a successful Remington restaurant.
He moved in above the eatery at 225 West 23rd St., new wife and baby in tow, rented his home and invested his 401(k) into the restaurant. For Raba, there was a larger goal at play — a chance to build something new.
The New York Times listed Bar Clavel as a spot to see when visiting Baltimore. The Food Network, Thrillist and Baltimore magazine have raved over Raba’s cooking, from his house-butchered lamb, chopped into a spicy barbacoa, to his butterflied shrimp and mahi mahi tacos.
“Sometimes I cook and say, ‘Man, I really know how to cook,” he said.
With his new eatery Nana, there’s no one to share the stage. It’s all Raba. The restaurant’s arrival comes later than expected, which Raba attributes to fundraising and a problematic landlord. Now, he knows the ropes; he can cultivate a menu, be creative with marketing and pick up the pace in his kitchen.
His tortillas are still homemade, and at Nana, tacos are only $5, while a whole chicken and three sides costs $35.
Raba is training cooks in his grandmother’s Sinaloan recipes and experimenting with soups like caldo de camaron, a traditional Mexican shrimp soup. He continues to split his time between Clavel and Nana, while still cooking for his young son and daughter.
He hopes to watch the place become a neighborhood fixture, feeding countless people in Baltimore County looking for a quick and flavorful bite. Until then, Raba will not rest.
“I still don’t have my house on the beach.”
This story was republished with with permission from The Baltimore Banner. Visit www.thebaltimorebanner.com for more.
Carlos Raba’s new restaurant ‘Nana’ to open its doors in Towson on Jan. 31
by Aliza Worthington
Published January 25 in Baltimore Fishbowl