West Coast Mex food love brought East
Nothing against Mexican food, but it's never been my go-to meal for dining out. Taco salads are in my rotation every so often, but I guess I haven't been to a restaurant that truly inspired a must-return reaction. Usually, I'm in it for the margaritas. Perhaps that is why it took me so long to venture over to Cilantro Tacos; well, that and the fact that it is in Newberry, about 30 minutes from 34th Street in Gainesville. Once Cilantro Tacos had a food truck that started circulating at local brewery events, food truck rallies, and even occasionally at Midnight Cookies, the family-owned, 3-year-old Mexican restaurant has been on my radar.
A trip out to Newberry for some outdoor laser tag — yes, the kind of laser tag that has you running around shooting opponents in the woods — brought my group right around the corner from Cilantro Tacos. We were all new to the very simplydecorated establishment, a dozen tables scattered around the dining area with a bar in the back for ordering beer and checking out.
The eight of us took up a few of those tables, while only two other parties were dining around us. After our server, Sam, promptly helped us set up the tables, she asked if we wanted to start with anything and got a flurry of "guacamole," "queso," and "salsa" requests thrown her way. She was a trooper. The tortilla chips, which seem very fresh, certainly possessed the crisp, seasoned mark of homemade freshness. The tomatillo salsa verde and roasted chile red sauce each had a unique, very pronounced, flavor, and the guacamole was creamy and zesty. However, I think I speak for a few members of the group when I say the pico de gallo was the star, each bite of the very chunky, cilantro-topped condiment as flavorful as the last.
On to the main event: If I was going to Cilantro Tacos, I surely was going to order the one thing the proprietor's felt a need to highlight above the rest – tacos. If the restaurant doesn't excel at what it is "known" for, that is a strong indication of quality. I already had my order in mind, but I was extremely pleased to hear that each taco in my order of three, $6.99, could hold a different meat. Carnitas is a go-to for me, and the barbacoa and the soft corn tortillas were highly recommended by the server.
The real adventure would be the lengua taco, which, for those unfamiliar, is beef tongue. Don't shy away from the sound of it: My previous experiences with the Mexican delicacy is that, if prepared correctly, it is pretty tender and should certainly have good flavor. It was my favorite taco of the trio, the chunks of meat just as savory and tender as I remembered. The carnitas and barbacoa were both good, too, but the carnitas was a close second to the lengua, the flavors of the marinade-soaked pulled pork indicative of hours simmering in a spice-laden sauce and pulled tender.
I opted to get my taco "all-the-way", which included cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion. and cilantro toppings, instead of the authentic style with just the basic onion, cilantro and lime, which I will be ordering next time for sure. I may or may not have snuck that pico de gallo in a few bites, too.
I had a bite of the al pastor pork, and it was a bit sweeter than expected (apparently due to marinating with pineapples and some other spices), and a bite of the fish, which was probably my least favorite protein, as I didn't feel the heavy seasoning was as cohesive with the white fish.
The burrito truly was a two-hander, as reaffirmed on the menu online, and the steak in it was well prepared, not dry or tough at all. I love nachos, and the beef ones I tried were well loaded, but the combination of the queso cheese, sour cream, and refried beans quickly made the chips soggy. The amount of lettuce, tomatoes and handful of cilantro perched atop the hill of protein topping was just right, though.
The fajitas seemed a good size, my friend remarking how flavorful the carnitas were, also, and how it was just the right portion size, even if eaten as a bowl without tortillas. Another friend even said the refried beans were very good "for refried beans," commenting that they did not get a thicker, glob consistency when cooled down as many lower quality types do.
The Southern California family brought generations of cooking with them to Newberry. Priding themselves on cooking fresh meat that hasn't been previously frozen, it is a tried-and-true family operation. Our server, Sam, was not only very attentive, but was extremely fun and friendly throughout our visit, chatting about everything from our interests to her background. Before we left, she introduced me to the chef who she fondly called "Mama," and who was just as charming as Sam.
Mama first mentioned how, although she had been in Newberry cooking at Cilantro Tacos for 3 years, she had been cooking with Grandma for over 10 years. She said that's where she got a lot of her recipes and tricks of the trade. She emphasized most how Grandma made sure Mama knew how to prepare meat, and that it is not just as simple as salting and grilling. "The meat takes time, it needs to be marinated."
I asked Mama about the delicious marinade she spoke so highly of, and she told me it was family secrets. Despite that, I had to also ask about the addicting pico de gallo, and she said there is much more to it than just lime juice and salt. When pressed further, she revealed spices were the key, mentioning cloves as a component. Interesting, no?
The time and cooking skills certainly showed in each dish, and I will be back to try another menu item, probably the fajitas, and chat with these extremely passionate, fun (and food)-loving people.
One friend at the table asked about how shrimp would fare in a quesadilla, and I am intrigued enough to return and find out once and for all. And to potentially buy out their stock of pico.
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Oreste Friday, 24 February 2017 09:22 Comment Link
My first comment about your review of Cilantros is that you have probably never been to a Mexican restaurant unless you have travelled to Mexico. Most restaurants here are little more than fancy taquerias. Gainesville is famous for bloated burritos. Yes, I understand, many of us need as many calories for the dollar as possible, but hard shell tacos and burritos have little to do with Mexican cuisine. First of Mexican cuisine is regional. Coastal Mexico produces incredible varieties seafood, from Callos de Hacha to dorado and grilled shrimp. Western Mexico is noted for its steak, especially the highly marbled arrachera. Central Mexico is the home of moles, chocolate, almond and a wide variety of this regional sauce. Many chefs have revived indigenous cuisine, fish and chicken grilled in leaves or clay, sweet or savory tamales, and the full gamut of chiles. There are many exotic dishes derived from the indigenous traditions of Mexico and then, in Mexico City, you can find the latest trends in modern cuisine prepared by chefs the highest caliber. Don't get me wrong, I love Agave Azul and one or two local taquerias, but your lead sentence in your review was, probably unintentionally, insulting to an old and rich culture that merits your further exploration. I haven't been to Cilantros, but I fear that in smaller towns like Gainesville, the market dictates taste. We will give it a try and strongly support local creativity.