Cilantro owner, Gladys Fernandez, honed her restaurant skills in the Adams Morgan area of Washington, D.C. Like many of us, she slipped the surly bonds big-city craziness and headed for Rehoboth Beach. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The food biz can be habit forming, and it wasn’t long before she began to hear the come-hither Siren song of the whisk, spatula and fryer. She had her eye on a great spot on Rehoboth Avenue, and when Blue restaurant closed, she was there to, in her words, “bring you the finest, most succulent and original culinary delicacies from Mexico” in the form of Cilantro.
There are hits and misses at Cilantro, and our experiences so far have been mixed. One of the issues we have found to be fairly consistent is their inability to get food out of the kitchen in a timely manner. Our server, though quite friendly, seemed to spend a fair amount of time in the weeds, but I suspect the slow kitchen more than him. Gladys told one of my trusted advance guard that her philosophy is, “La comida preparada en el momento.” Roughly translated, “each dish is prepared fresh when ordered.” It’s a lofty goal, and one that still, even in this rewrite, seems to need some fine-tuning when they’re packed on a summer Saturday.
We also hope they turn on the air conditioning when it really heats up in the summer. It DOES get warm in there. Unfortunately, the same issue occasionally marred otherwise good summer meals when Blue, and before them, Taste, occupied the space. If I want to sweat, I’ll sit in one of their outside seating areas both in the front and the back. The hostess gave us a choice of inside and out, and we were amused because there was really no difference temperature-wise — except there was no breeze inside.
The showstopper on the appetizer menu is the Taquitos Dorados de la Merced. These are different from the tightly rolled “Cigarillo”-style taquitos you normally see. They are large, crispy and loosely wrapped (not unlike myself), and are stuffed with your choice of chicken or beef. They are generously topped with guacamole, lettuce, sour cream, pico de gallo and white, crumbly queso fresco (a mild Mexican cheese made from cow’s milk). We had the chicken and loved it. Next time I might order two of these dishes, add a couple of cold Modelo Especials and call it dinner.
The Foodie’s network of spies suggested the Sopa Azteca. Firm cubes of mixed vegetables basked in a light tomato broth with chicken, cilantro, tortilla strips, cheese and avocado bits. It’s sort of like Tortilla Soup, actually, but perhaps a bit thinner. The freshness of the vegetables was a value-added. We also ordered the Guacamole Molcajete. On both of our first visits, it was not served in a molcajete (the Mexican version of the mortar (bowl) part of a mortar and pestle, hewn from lava rock). However, on our most recent visit, it was. So all is forgiven.
Another tasty nosh is the Corn on the Cob. It’s slathered with what tasted like a spicy chipotle mayo and is pretty much a meal in itself. The Queso Fundido en Cazuela consists of a casserole of Oaxaca cheese (pronounced “wah-hock’-ah”), melted and mixed with Gladys’ very tasty Chorizo sausage, mushrooms and red poblanos. You can sop it up with your choice of corn or flour tortillas. Get the flour. They’re not quite so toothsome and leave more room to taste the chorizo and the peppers.
One of my favorite Foodies-in-Waiting is a Chicken Mole expert. It’s the first thing he tries at any Mexican joint. Mole is like pizza, barbecue and any other regional ethnic favorite: There are many different preparations, and no two are the same. The one made by your sweet Abuelita is always the best, of course. The verdict? He loved it. The mole sauce, redolent with dried chilis, chocolate, raisins, peanuts, pecans obviously has other ingredients that are kept under lock and key. It has a depth and richness that is unequaled anywhere else in Rehoboth Beach. My Foodie friend asked me to beg Gladys to kick up the price a buck and put on another piece of pollo. Please?
The Tacos Callejeros are also quite good. The trio of soft tacos is offered with beef, chicken OR that delightful chorizo. Why the “or?” Annoyingly, they won’t give you one of each meat. Of course, it’s their restaurant, and they can do what they want. But it’s my website, so I can complain about it. It just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Arbitrary rules like that just end up leaving people with a negative vibe. I finally cajoled young Carlos (our server) to order me a chorizo and two chickens. They were simply delicious. I hope they didn’t fire him.
The Enchiladas Suizas are simple and perfectly wonderful. The chicken filling is firm and well spiced, and the wonderful little corn wraps are topped with salsa ranchera, melted white cheese and sour cream (aka the slang, crema). Don’t miss the Tacos de Pescado, either. They are crunchy with curtido (red cabbage), a selection of red or green salsas and, of course, that spicy mayo sauce.
The Tostadas Chilangas are crispy, golden brown corn tortillas topped with beans, lettuce pico de gallo, your choice of pollo or carne, queso fresco and an assortment of salsitas. They were described by one of my trusted Foodettes (she is terminally cute, and of the Mexican persuasion) as “much like my grandmother made.” Need I say more?
Carlos (the master of the smiling upsell) talked us into getting the Flauta Rellena dessert. Freshly fried slices of plantain surround a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a warm, crispy, cinnamon-encrusted Flauta, filled with banana cream and drizzled with chocolate. Thank you, Carlos.
Visitor feedback is certainly mixed. Cilantro still seems to have problems getting the food out of the kitchen before people starve to death. And when it does come out, it is not consistent. This is certainly a problem, especially with the very experienced and consistent Mariachi restaurant just around the corner.
Cilantro Cocina de Mexico is located on the south side of Rehoboth Avenue in the second block from the ocean. Check out their dinner menu here. Give them a call for off-season hours (302) 226-1000. (L., D., Bar) Price range: Moderate.