Latino restaurants that feature dishes from a multiple of indigenous Latino cuisines have the advantage of broad appeal. These restaurants can feature paella from Spain, fruit and root dishes from the Caribbean islands, sauces from Central America, and items that are uniquely South American. Plus, a savvy restaurateur may throw in a Mexican taquito or two for good measure. Establishing a large client base is a good idea in Charlotte, which has seen a succession of exclusive Latino cuisine restaurants such as the Cuban Siboney and Gran Havana, the Peruvian Inka Grille, and the Argentinean Tango Argentino restaurants fail partially due to an inadequate customer base.
At Cilantro's, Gonzalez has designed the interior to create an ambience that coaxes the diner to linger. While on the patio you may feel like you are still in a south Charlotte shopping center, the interior transports you to an ambiguously Latinesque courtyard at sunset, complete with streetlamps, wicker chairs, faux tile tabletops, banana tree, and a balcony containing the coziest seating.
Once inside, you'll be greeted warmly, then onto dinner with a flourish. Servers deliver crispy chips with a trio of sauces: Central America's pico de gallo, a classic salsa, and Argentinean chimichurri sauce: chopped garlic, parsley, peppers (not hot), white vinegar, and olive oil. Service is almost too informal, particularly with wine. Most of the bottles, which are stored in a charming antique telephone booth, are from South America or Spain. Some are offered by the glass, but seemed overpriced considering their wholesale value. On one evening I ordered a glass of chardonnay, my server suggested another winery's chardonnay, and then brought me a glass of merlot. Yeah, I didn't get it either.
But wine service aside, the food at Cilantro's is worthy of a go. Although between my visits and now the kitchen at Cilantro's has changed. The newly promoted chef is Jose Olnos, who trained in the apprentice system in Argentina. "The other chef is in New York right now and may come back in a few weeks," Gonzalez reported. However, Gonzales, who also trained in culinary arts in Guadalajara, Mexico, maintains control. For nine years he worked, both in the front of the house and kitchen, in Miro's, Zapata's, and Azteca.
Cilantro's menu, in Spanish but with English descriptions, is an artful roster punctuated with taste delights. I began my exploration with the arepas, the national food of Venezuela. This recipe is strictly Gonzalez. These burger bun-sized cornbread appetizers are brimming with tender shredded beef, tomatoes and onions. In Venezuela, arepas are so popular that food stands known as areperas dot the streets. Another appetizer standout was the Argentinean empanadas. These are not the ravioli-sized Empanaditas from Quito or Colombia, rather these pastries filled a plate and your mouth with cumin-scented ground beef mixed with scallions and tomatoes. In contrast to this appetizer was the ubiquitous quesadilla, in a slightly less stellar production with a melted brie and walnut interior mixed with a helping of tangy fruit salsa fresca.
The entree Cochinita Pibil is a nicely grilled, thinly sliced pork loin. Better was the side of potatoes. The most flavorful dish, though, is the hearty Paella Veracruzana, available in two sizes. The smaller one is filled with saffron rice, dozens of mussels, clams, tender shrimp, and not too chewy squid, peas, and smaller slices of chicken and pork, and is impossible to finish. Cilantro's entrees range in price from $14 to $20.
The only desserts made in-house are the cheesecakes. Our ears perked up when told of the Pia Colada cheesecake, but alas, it was sold out. The chocolate mousse proved smooth, but not intense.
The Gonzalez family is busy with their two south Charlotte restaurants and three little girls, whose names are on the children's menu. On Sunday, Cilantro offers a special lunch menu with Mexican and Cuban dishes.
Cilantro's is a smart bet in Charlotte's burgeoning Latino cuisine scene. While not innovative Nuevo Latino cuisine, the dishes served here are well executed mainstays served in portions so big you'll have trouble getting to dessert.
Seen on a can of Bush's Baked Beans: Made with fresh onions. Does that matter now that they are canned?
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