Chef Dilsa Lugo’s flan de coco ($6) has changed my mind about the dessert. She serves her thrilling version cold, like a frozen custard that’s just as creamy. The liquid caramel on top spills over the sides, carrying a slightly burnt flavor that cuts the sweetness of the flan itself. Lugo’s secret is the baking time. “If you overcook it, you can see some bubbles and it gets a little bit dry,” she said.
After closing Los Cilantros in Berkeley during the pandemic, Lugo reopened the Shattuck Avenue restaurant last month. She and her team had always intended to come back, even while operating in San Francisco out of La Cocina’s kitchen in the Tenderloin. But the kitchen at La Peña Cultural Center, where Los Cilantros operates, was in the midst of a protracted remodel.
“It was crazy, because it wasn’t just opening a restaurant—it was closing one [at La Cocina] and opening a new one,” Lugo said. As soon as the refurbished kitchen was completed, Lugo moved in and began serving her homemade tortillas again. She grew up in Morelos, a small town in Mexico. Her father grew corn and her mother made tortillas every day. “I want to share very good, handmade tortillas,” she said. “It’s very expensive because we have one person making tortillas all the time. Not everyone knows how to make them.”
Four of those corn tortillas come with the chile rellenos de queso ($17). The chef stuffs a roasted poblano chili with queso fresco and then smothers it in a tomato sauce. I filled a tortilla with the poblano chili, cheese and tomato sauce. And then I savored a warm tortilla without anything on it.
When facing the front entrance of La Peña, Los Cilantros sits on the far left. Inside, neat rows of papel picado hang down from the ceiling. Tables fill the central dining space and nestle against a long brick wall that stretches back into the kitchen, where one employee diligently rolled out balls of masa dough.
Lugo didn’t have access to a hood at La Cocina, so she couldn’t fry any of the ingredients. “I’m very excited because we have everything that we want [in the new kitchen],” she said. Los Cilantros’ popular fish tacos are back on the menu, as is pozole. “We have the red and the white,” Lugo said. Her mother came from Guerrero, Mexico. In that part of the country they make a white pozole. “You serve it white and then you add the salsa that you want,” she said.
Los Cilantros serves single tacos ($4.50) and tostadas ($4.50), too. Both are served on the same-sized corn tortillas, but the tostada shell is deep fried until it’s crispy. The chicken tostada, tinged red from a chipotle stew, is served on a bed of black refried beans and topped with queso fresco, crema and avocado. The tender barbacoa beef taco is minimally adorned with diced red onion and cilantro leaves.
The chicken enchilada plate ($16) encompasses a variety of striking colors, from the green salsa verde and avocado to the white crema and queso to the finishing touch of thinly sliced red radishes. Agua frescas ($4) also come in an array of striking colors—bright yellow pineapple, a dark magenta jamaica and pale orange cantaloupe.
None of them are too sweet. “We don’t have a big walk in-refrigerator,” Lugo said. “We make the agua frescas every day with fresh fruit. We have to make small batches of everything, so you can taste the difference.”
Many of Lugo’s former customers returned to Los Cilantros after she posted the opening date on social media. “A lot of neighbors came in and they brought flowers,” she said. “One came for lunch and then they came back for dinner.” They told her they were happy that Los Cilantros had reopened. Lugo, who is also a Berkeley resident, said it was so nice to be welcomed back.
Los Cilantros, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Open Wed to Fri, 11am to 3pm and 5-9pm; Sat and Sun, 10am to 3pm and 5-9pm. 510.990.6710. instagram.com/loscilantros