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.