The Spice is Right

The Spice is Right

Cilantro is the kind of place where you’re compelled to ask what’s in the sauce and the person at the counter knows the exact answer. In this case it was “the green sauce,” one of four you can get with tortilla chips when you order a meal. You take the chips and the sauce to the table with you and tear into them while you wait. The chips were freshly fried, audibly crispy, with just enough salt. But the sauce was the thing, tart in a summery, unconcocted sort of way. That’s the tomatillo, said Teresa Montanari, who had taken my order. She then listed the other ingredients. Jalapeño is what gave it a salsa verde kick, with avocado mixed in for a creamier taste and color. I asked for more chips so I could finish it up.

Cilantro shares a trapezoidal brick building with Dayton Street Apizza, but the entrances are on opposite sides—Cilantro faces in-bound traffic on Whalley Avenue—so it looks like the two kitchens don’t talk to each other. However, both eateries—and a third in Seymour—are run by Sara Holycross, who grew up nearby and remembers when they were a laundromat and a pharmacy, respectively. It was Chris Guerra, her partner in both business and life, who opened Dayton Street in 1998 and later bought the building outright.

sponsored by

Hopkins School Open House

Guerra’s original aspiration for the newly acquired space was a Chinese restaurant. But New Haven at large was a place where Mexican expat culture was thriving, and Holycross remembers how their cooks at Dayton Street, who happened to be Latino, would use the stove to make their food. “When it would slow down or at night, they would bring their own ingredients, cook up their own true Spanish and Mexican food, and it would look and smell delicious.” Holycross and Guerra had also been impressed by the bursting, on-demand burritos at Chipotle (then newly arrived in Milford) as well as other Latin-style foods in Florida (where Guerra had a second home). Eschewing Chipotle’s assembly line and restoring the kitchen to the center of the made-to-order process meant that the food would be fresher and the menu more dexterous. One of the aforementioned cooks at Dayton Street, Ludin Perez, who now runs the day-to-day operations at Cilantro, says the ingredients are delivered fresh to his kitchen every morning. “Nothing we serve here comes prepared,” he adds.

The menu board behind the counter is hard-coded with the items Americans are accustomed to—tacos and burritos, with a “specialties” section that includes chicken enchiladas and quesadillas. Wanting something forkable, I ordered the enchiladas ($11.95). Montanari brought them out steaming, drowning in the special sauce—also green—with cheese dripping over the top. These blended together sumptuously, with the shredded chicken providing a pleasingly moist chew in the middle. The rice it came with was clumpy and dry under an unexpressive pile of cilantro, but the black beans were firm to just the right degree, steeped in a gently flavorful broth.

Overall, the meal was a mouth-watering, pleasantly burning version of a Mexican restaurant staple. But Perez also routinely introduces and trains Cilantro’s cooks to prepare new items, adding them to a separate, erasable Specials board, which makes Cilantro more like a home kitchen. “We try a few things,” Perez says. “We’ve tried black bean soup. We’ve tried other types of soups. We put it out there. But once we came out with the tortilla soup, that’s what people asked for.”

The chicken tortilla soup—prepared every morning, almost always running out—is now permanently on the Specials board, whereas other experiments come and go. The Carne Asada ($13.95), a platter of grilled meats, tortillas and toppings you assemble yourself, grew so popular that it graduated from the Specials board to the Menu board. The permanence of those items is the mark of a regular customer base, hooked once and forever. There are some customers so regular, they request old, out-of-print Specials items and the cooks oblige when they can.

The Tofunky Taco gets its own smaller board the size of a picture frame. It is, according to Holycross, popular even with non-vegetarian customers who’ve overcome their reservations about tofu. I enjoyed the Slammin’ Slaw they put on top, its extreme heat and undercurrent of carrot-y sweetness making it a dish all its own. The Fish Taco ($3.45) was, for me, a better assembly of taco parts, with the filet’s breading nicely crisp against the doughiness of the 2-ply tortilla and a cilantro cream sauce that, by itself, justifies naming Cilantro after cilantro. All the tacos are authentically soft-shelled, small and easy to handle. You could eat them walking out.

Aside from inventing new tacos, Perez runs the whole day-to-day operation—“my right hand,” Holycross says, only half-joking. Conversely anybody can be involved in the cooking and prep. “If they ask how to do it,” Perez says, “I’m willing to teach them.” Both of the current prep cooks were, in fact, hired as dishwashers so they would be teachable, learning to cook in Cilantro’s kitchen by being exposed to it. Anybody is capable of pitching in anywhere during a lunch rush, which is certainly how Montanari knew every ingredient in the green sauce.

In an industry known for high turnover, Montanari says Cilantro’s new hires usually stay on for at least a year. (Montanari, for instance, and Jorge Flores, the head cook, both arrived within 6 months of Cilantro’s opening in 2012.) The staff then becomes—next to the Specials board—a draw for a regular customer base. After all, if you know the faces and eventually the names of the people you order from, it’s likely they’ll remember you, too.

Given what it’s come to mean for the people who work and eat there, when Guerra unexpectedly passed away in 2016, the possibility of selling Cilantro or the other restaurants was never seriously entertained. Holycross had been running the restaurants with Guerra since 1999. Along the way, “I raised our daughter here. She was literally two months old in one of those carriers on my chest.” When her daughter, now 5, is asked who owns Cilantro, she points to herself. In the legal sense, she’s correct. She shares the inheritance with her stepsister, who is 20.

Holycross thinks a second Cilantro could open in Hamden or North Haven in the not-too-distant future. Guerra had even had the dining room decorated in such a way that it could be easily repeatable in other spaces. It’s pull-up-a-chair informal, with classic rock playing overhead. It’s also pleasingly ambient, with soft lighting, crafty cilantro-shaped cutouts on stained wood ceiling panels and food propaganda art prints on the walls. “Our tacos can’t be stopped,” reads one of them, and, for me, eating was conceding.

Cilantro Fresh Mexican Grill
1158 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Daily 11:30am-10pm
(203) 389-1212

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

More Stories