El Cilantro is not your typical Mexican restaurant. Yes, you might find a place like this in a big city, but not in Saratoga County.
And unless you’ve traveled to Oaxaca, a southern state on the Pacific that’s known for its chocolate, sandy beaches, indigenous culture and archaeological wonders, you probably haven’t tasted food like this.
Take for example, Queso Oaxaca, the cheese of this region. This mild white cheese is super stretchy, like mozzarella on steroids. And then there is tlayudas, a giant tostada that looks more like a pizza. Mole, a sauce of spices, chocolate and chiles, is another specialty.
At El Cilantro, the meats are a little different, too, with beef tongue and goat on the menu in addition to chicken, steak and chorizo.
The Lonely Planet travel guide refers to the capital city of Oaxaca, (pronounced wa-HA-ka) as “the foodie capital of Mexico.”
El Cilantro, which opened less than a year ago, is a food adventure.
“Everything is homemade. We try to show the customers authentic dishes,” says Vidal, the owner, who preferred that we use only his first name. His wife, Dolores, is the chef. “People who travel to Mexico know the food,” he says. “People like the taquitos and the chicken mole. We’ve got a lot of customers coming for the menudo.”
As Mexican restaurants go around here, it’s humble and smaller, but brightly decorated with tomato-red walls, garlands in green, red and white — the colors of the Mexican flag — and Frida Kahlo self-portraits.
On the Saturday night we stopped in, there were diners at two other tables. Mexican folk music was playing softly, a TV was tuned to the news and we could hear the homey clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen.
Cilantro doesn’t have its liquor license yet, so husband Dan ordered a bottle of tamarind flavor Jarritos, Mexico’s signature fruit-and-real-sugar soda, while I opted for “te de canela,” an immensely satisfying cinnamon tea. In Mexico, they use a type of cinnamon called Ceylon, from Sri Lanka, which is less harsh than the cassia cinnamon common in the U.S., and the soft crumbly spice stick is mixed with boiling water. Steamy hot, in an oversized cup, this tea was a highlight of my evening.
Champurrado, Mexican hot chocolate, is another beverage choice.
While scanning the menu, we munched on complimentary chips and salsa for a few minutes, then decided to add some guacamole. Next time, I’ll skip the guac. This stuff was bland and baby-food smooth. It did not taste homemade.
Intent on sampling a truly Oaxacan dish, I went for the tlayudas (la-you-das) with beef tongue. The size of a large dinner plate, this is a monster meal that two could easily share. A thin and crispy flour tortilla, handmade and grilled by Dolores, was smeared with bean mash, then topped with shredded lettuce, twists of the aforementioned elastic cheese (a special delivery from New York City), avocado and tomato slices. The beef tongue, mild-tasting and similar to beef brisket, was diced into tiny cubes and scattered over the veggie middle.
Next to the big plate, Vidal placed dishes of sour cream and a red chile sauce. He brought me the mild sauce, which I would label “medium,” and he has another for those who like it hot.
Dan loves taquitos and was geared up for goat, but it wasn’t available the night we visited. He opted for chicken, which was shredded and tucked into four double corn tortillas, and garnished with a half lime and radishes. Dolores loads the taquitos with chopped onion and cilantro, but my guy didn’t like that idea, so his dish, ordered without, was a bit ho-hum.
Other menu items that caught my eye were the Stuffed Poblano Pepper with chicken, garlic, tomatoes, raisins and green chiles, and the tamales, which change with the day of week and include chicken with mole, beef with red sauce and chicken with green sauce.
Desserts? How about some flan or tres leches cake? I ordered the latter and packed it in my take-home bag with the still-monstrous remainder of my tlayudas.
Permeated with condensed and evaporated milk, the small slice of yellow sponge cake was rich and custardy, a delightful counterpoint to its airy overcoat of lightly sweetened whipped cream.
WHERE: 388 Milton Ave., Ballston Spa; 518-309-4052; mexicanrestaurantel
WHEN: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Mon.-Sat.
HOW MUCH: $43.40
without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards accepted, takeout available, parking lot. Not yet licensed to serve alcohol.