In most cases, gas station food is only eaten by the most desperate of travelers and the most delirious of stoners. It’s an experience that’s typically marked with lingering regret and occasional food poisoning. But after I ate dinner at Cilantro Mexican Grill inside of a Chevron Station in North Hollywood, I felt inspired (if more than a little bit perplexed).
After years in LA, I have grown accustomed to (and been spoiled by) getting chef-driven, inventive food from taco trucks and pop up restaurants. Still, the idea of having a genuinely notable dining experience while sitting next to a Doritos display inside of a gas station was baffling. Because Cilantro isn’t just good for gas station food, it isn’t just good for a Mexican restaurant in North Hollywood, Cilantro is one of the best Mexican restaurants I have eaten at in my entire life.
More importantly, it also has the single most delicious, decadent, and unforgettable burrito I have come across in 33 years of searching, from the trucks of Los Angeles, to the taquerias of Central California and the Bay Area, across the breadth of Mexico, and even China — the surf and turf burrito.
The surf and turf at Cilantro stars certified Angus beef and perfectly pan-seared shrimp. Cilantro pesto and other homemade salsas are painted in stripes across the burrito — so that each bite is a tidy package of harmonious flavor. This is the burrito I’ve always wanted, but never knew existed, or was even possible. Because after eating thousands of burritos, I never knew the dish could be anything more than it already was. I accepted the muddled flavors and the uneven ingredient distribution and even loved the dish for it. But the surf and turf burrito at Cilantro showed me the burrito can be something even better, that it can have sharp individual flavors which still combine to make a better whole and that it can be filled with fancy ingredients and not impart a single note of pretension.
But more than anything, I learned that the humble burrito can be a gourmet experience.
And it can come from a gas station.
And still cost less than Chipotle.
To understand why these transcendent burritos are being sold in the same building as slushies and windshield wipers, you have to understand the man behind Cilantro.
Adolfo Perez studied at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute in Pasadena, then spent the following years working in the kitchens of Hamburger Hamlet and The Cheesecake Factory. When Adolfo finally set off to open a restaurant, he was quickly given his own kitchen…in a North Hollywood gas station, serving a limited menu of egg sandwiches and muffins. But here’s the thing about Adolfo: he had ideas. Ideas about how to elevate the cuisine of his native Mexico, ideas on recipes, ideas for new takes on traditional dishes, and ideas on how to express his creativity through food.
For years, Adolfo was stuck in corporate restaurants, following recipes created by focus groups, where uniformity was valued over innovation. But after proving himself in the snack station at the Chevron, Adolfo was given the opportunity to cook his own food, his own way. And this is where something truly special happened. Because after years of creative frustration, Adolfo could finally unleash his vision of Mexican food, and his time toiling in the kitchens of Hamburger Hamlet, and The Cheesecake Factory, and Le Cordon Bleu, had given him the skills to make those visions a reality.
And judging by the quality of the food, it was definitely worth the wait.
Like the dipped torta…
Which unlike the traditional torta ahogada, retains the texture of the bread (a crusty ciabatta in this case) by having a layer of enchilada sauce on the plate for dipping. Though both the bread and the steak in this sandwich were delicious, the roasted tomato enchilada sauce (made with no artificial thickening agents) was the highlight.
Or the guac and shrimps…
This guac was so delicately and expertly balanced that it tasted like it should be served on fine china instead of a fried tortilla bowl. Though I did eat the majority of the tortilla bowl, so Adolfo clearly had the right idea.
Or the breakfast burritos…
Which are the reason most people come through the doors, and I can understand why.
But still, it’s the surf and turf burrito that stuck with me, and it will be the first thing I order when I return.
Recently, as I savored my second meal in a week at a gas station, classical music played over the sound system. The music seemed an odd choice for the surroundings at first — the gas station is clean and modern, but still undeniably a gas station. But as I started eating, I quickly understood the music selection; classic music is the only appropriate choice for Cilantro. Because Adolfo Perez isn’t just making food in that kitchen, he is creating art.
Right next to the diet supplements and air fresheners.