Cilantro’s serves up a world of Latin cuisines in tiny space
Empanadas, fried pastries stuffed with sweet or savory ingredients, form a common thread through the diverse world of Latin cuisines. They’re uncomplicated and inexpensive to make, easy to eat out of hand on the street or in a restaurant and are substantial enough to quickly vanquish hunger in just a few bites.
In Mexico, they might be stuffed with ground beef or pumpkin; in Puerto Rico blue crab is common, and in Colombia, potatoes are popular. Whatever your ethnicity or preference, you are likely to find a familiar version — along with an array of unfamiliar ones — at Cilantro’s Restaurant in Port Charlotte. I am not going out on a limb to say that it serves the most wide-ranging assortment of empanadas you are likely to find in one eatery in Southwest Florida. (A quick Google search turned up an Orlando restaurant that offers 70 variations.)
From cheesesteak to chicken, cordon bleu to crab, guava with cheese to peanut butter and jelly, Cilantro’s has more than 20 options. There’s a pizza empanada made with pepperoni, a lasagna empanada with everything but the noodles and a Hawaiian empanada with ham and pineapple. One could, ostensibly, eat empanadas for appetizers, main course and dessert.
We didn’t quite go to that extreme, because there are other delicious dishes to sample on Cilantro’s globe-trotting menu. Owner Dary Colom, a native of Puerto Rico, aims to satisfy the diverse tastes of Latin customers with regional favorites such as the classic Cuban sandwich, a Mexican torta with steak and beans, Argentinean country-fried steak, Venezuelan shredded beef and arepas and Colombian chorizo sausage.
It’s hard to choose a direction in which to begin the international feast, but Ms. Colom is quick to provide helpful guidance. Cilantro’s is a small enough restaurant — just four tables — that the staff can provide the personal touch missing from a lot of restaurants these days. She even offered to turn down the music if it was too loud. (It wasn’t.)
Unfortunately, we got more than a figuratively warm welcome on the night we visited. The air conditioning apparently was malfunctioning and the dining room simmered at 89 degrees, according to the thermostat. After an initial outbreak of sweat, we got acclimated to the tropical climate and it didn’t lessen our enjoyment of what turned out to be a noteworthy meal.
A cold bottle of the Puerto Rican beer Medalla Light ($3.25) and a frosty glass smoothed over some of the comfort issues. Cilantro’s also has a selection of Latin sodas, including Postobon, Coco Rico and Jarritos.
Naturally, we decided to start with empanadas and narrowed our selection to four ($2.50-$3 apiece). They came out piping hot on a platter with cups of a super-garlicky dipping sauce. The seams of the pastry pockets were closed with an attractive hand-braided edge — not just sealed with a fork like you might do at home. The pastry was crisp and flaky and well drained of frying oil.
The basic ground beef version contained the most filling, and it was juicy and flavorful. We also liked the crab version and a new addition, the chori empanada made with an imported
Argentinian sausage. It tasted like a really good all-beef hot dog slathered with mustard and wrapped in a turnover. The only one that didn’t quite hit the mark was the chickenbroccoli tomato combination, and it was only because there wasn’t enough of the tasty filling inside the puffed-up pocket.
We pondered the wisdom of ordering dessert empanadas while waiting for the main course. There’s not much in the lime-green dining room to distract diners — a painting on the wall behind us, a large Puerto Rican flag hanging across the counter separating the kitchen from the dining room. The space could express a bit more personality, but Ms. Colom has directed her attention to what really counts: the food. And from what I noticed, she makes certain that each plate is precisely arranged and looks appealing. A lot of small mom-and-pop outfits don’t pay that much attention to presentation details.
Consider the Venezuelan plate ($10.25), for instance. A dome of white rice in the center of the plate was topped with a picture-perfect sunnyside-up egg with the yolk dead center. Golden bias-sliced fried plantains were lined up and tucked under the rice so they pointed out like rays of sweet sunshine. A pile of juicy shredded beef was nestled next to the rice without its juices splashing the white rice.
Who needs a food stylist?
Everything tasted as good as it looked. The shredded beef was laced with tomatoes and onion, reminding me of Cuban ropa vieja. The plantains were perfectly caramelized, and a side of kidney beans came in an intensely flavored beef broth.
The mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish of mashed fried plantains studded with garlic chunks and fried pork skin, was equally impressive. It’s available with a variety of meats and seafood starting at $10.95. My garlic shrimp version ($13.75) had eight perfectly cooked shrimp placed on and around the molded mound of plantains liberally sprinkled with cilantro. The traditional chicken broth was included for dipping forkfuls of the plantains. A small salad also was included.
Dessert brought a needed remedy to the copious amounts of garlic we consumed: Ms. Colom’s signature tres leches flan ($3.95), a layering of two of the best Latin desserts. Creamy, custardy, sweet and drizzled with chocolate syrup — what more could you ask for?
Tiny as it is, Cilantro’s is accomplishing big things with its food. It’s bound to be a hit with patrons longing for an authentic taste of home as well as diners who appreciate well-crafted international cuisine.
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