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Local Restaurant Comes of Age

Cilantros celebrates 21 years in Watsonville.

I love visiting small, local taquerias and food trucks, which provide affordable, homestyle Mexican meals often featuring regional specialties and handmade tortillas. They’re not fancy, but many of these “mom and pop” eateries deserve return visits.

Still, there’s something to be said for larger Mexican restaurants like and . They’ve become institutions by virtue of their staying power, and have put a lot of time and effort into understanding and catering to the multi-cultural clientele of this area.

Last Sunday Michael and I visited for the brunch special. A large and popular restaurant, at 1:30 p.m. the place was bustling and a bit noisy. The customers varied from single diners to couples and families with children.

We were immediately served warm, crisp tortilla chips and salsa. Michael’s diet Coke (in a medium-size glass) was fairly pricey at $3. Clearly, the drinks are an important part of their offerings; they include local California wines, beer, tequila and mixed drinks from the bar, Jose’s Cantina. A glance around the dining room revealed that the strawberry and passion fruit Margaritas are popular.

While checking out their botanas (appetizers), I noticed an unusual item: sashimi. I suspect that it’s included in the otherwise Mexican menu because it’s a local favorite.

We ordered the Vegetable Rollos appetizer, and were impressed by the presentation on a colorful platter with guacamole, fresh pico de gallo and a flavorful salsa. Wrapped in flakey, fried flour tortillas, the rollos were full of chunky vegetable goodness: broccoli, cauliflower, onions, carrots, as well as beans, mushrooms and cheddar cheese.  While cheddar is not exactly “authentic” for Mexican food, it was still yummy. At $11, this appetizer was the most expensive item we ordered from the brunch menu; however, it was large enough to have served as an entrée.

I ordered a Shrimp Scramble. Like the rollos, it was well-plated, and accompanied by the usual frijoles and Spanish rice. The latter were decent, and the eggs—scrambled with plump shrimp and cheddar cheese—was very good, although a bit too mild for my taste. I added some of the salsa from the rollos, to spice it up a bit.

Michael ordered menudo (a spicy soup containing beef stomach). Brought in a large steaming bowl, it was accompanied with chopped cilantro and jalapeños, and a wedge of lime. The red broth was rich and spicy, and the chunks of beef stomach were meltingly tender. To our surprise it contained pata (pig’s foot), as well, which might be more common ingredient in a local taqueria.

Cilantros is one of two restaurants, including El Palomar in Santa Cruz, owned by Jose and Amelia Espinoza. According to the manager, Chris Brosnahan, Cilantros will celebrate its 21st anniversary Aug. 20 with parking lot party. Customers 21 and over are invited (with a $10 cover).

Both restaurants specialize in Michoacán cuisine. While El Palomar’s clientele consists primarily of Santa Cruz’s tourist crowd, Cilantros customers are mainly locals of the Pajaro Valley area, Brosnahan said. Cilantros survives because the owners and staff stay involved with the community through charity benefits and other events. Customers enjoy their happy hours, featuring DJs from local radio stations such as , KDON and The Hippo (104.5 FM), as well as family nights. Finally, their great service and food keep them coming back for more.

1934 Main St. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.—3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.—Thurs. 5—9:30 p.m., Fri.—Sat. 11 a.m.—10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.—9:30 p.m.; happy hour, Mon.—Thurs. 4—6 p.m. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.—10 a.m.—3 p.m. (831) 761-2161.

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