Deep in the core of North Hollywood, on a stretch that feels as if it’s composed entirely of storage unit facilities and wholesale kitchen granite warehouses, sits a gas station where most of the people parked at pumps aren’t getting gas. Instead, they’re inside at Cilantro Mexican Grill, a small restaurant run by chef Adolfo Perez, an alumnus of the Pasadena branch of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school.
Unlike much of the dense, overworked, unimaginative Mexican food one might find in the neighborhood, the meals at Cilantro are simple, healthy and creative.
It wasn’t always like that, however. Initially hired on a three-month contract to improve what was then a small eatery “designed to serve 7-Eleven–type items like premade sandwiches,” Perez sensed the potential of both the space and the patrons.
When that tenure ended, Perez proposed an original, healthy menu using fresh, locally sourced ingredients and was eventually given carte blanche to re-create the restaurant according to this philosophy. Having worked for much of his career in the corporate restaurant industry, where chefs are required to follow specific cooking protocols, at Cilantro, he “was given 100 percent freedom, and the rest is history.”
Juxtaposed against the shelves of synthetic snacks and sugary fountain drinks of the station’s food mart, Perez’s cuisine seem especially pure and entirely separate from what he calls the “repetitious” selections of many Mexican restaurants. Here there’s a lean menu of basics including tortas, bowls and tacos (don’t expect seven-page menus), but for an extra $1.25 the staff will turn them into customized masterpieces, using as their palette a small but inventive fixings bar that includes extras such as roasted serrano and cilantro pesto, chili lime corn and an unspeakably hot habanero sauce.
In fact, the ritual of taking the meals from basic to bespoke is as much a part of the experience as the food itself. While the ordering process can be intimidating — there are a lot of regulars here and holding up the always very long line can feel like holding children back from their Christmas presents — it’s also part of the fun.
Orders are taken by hand and customers are informally corralled until they're called up to the counter, where a server stands ready to garnish each item one by one. Even the technique seems to be part of the show, with all staff members “swiping” the sauces and salsas the exact same way across the tortillas, creating culinary rainbows that taste as good as they look.
Perez says part of what gives the dishes their taste is his commitment to truly fresh food. “We never cook in large batches,” he notes. “We only cook in small batches so it tastes like someone made it homemade.”
While everything at Cilantro is excellent, the restaurant is perhaps best known for its burritos, which come off the line with impressive frequency. Made with especially light tortillas, they can be filled with anything from beef tongue to fresh grilled shrimp. The vegetarian version includes an unexpected medley of lightly sauteed, remarkably flavorful onions and corn, a combo that has a simultaneously sweet and spicy taste.
Interestingly, Perez reports, many of the most popular dishes aren’t even on the menu. The Surf and Turf bowl, for instance, is a huge favorite, although it appears nowhere on the order board; same is true of the California Burrito, which is a burrito topped with a mound of super-crispy thin fries (OK, so there are some items that are less healthy than others). Should you crave something else not on the menu, Perez says all it takes is a request and if it’s possible, they’ll whip it up for you.
If you happen to find yourself there in the morning, there is a small pastry section with such goodies as red guava in puff pastry and sweet corn muffins.
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Most patrons take their food to go. Unfortunately, the one thing that is atrocious here is the parking. With only a handful of spots and no place to park nearby, it can take longer to park than to eat. There is always a handful of customers who stick around to experience the gas station ambiance by sitting down at one of the small tables.
Six years in, Perez still believes in his philosophy and, judging by the business this place does, he’s wise to do so: “I always wanted to do something different. Someone has to think outside the box so it’s not just the same old chips and salsa. When you do things correctly, the results will be great.”
Cilantro Mexican Grill, 7214 Whitsett Ave., North Hollywood; (818) 765-7998, cilantromexican.com.