Cilantro hits the spot when we’re in the mood for fresh, inexpensive Mexican. Located kitty corner to Foodland in Lahaina, we love to buy some beer at the market and head here for a quick, satisfying meal rounded out by our own choice of adult beverage.
The gleaming exhibition kitchen is staffed by friendly chefs who work the tortilla presses, grills, and cutting boards in full sight while you place your order at the counter. The owner, though Persian, explored the heart of Mexico to find authentic recipes, which are best reflected in his house specialties and superb salsas.
Succulent roasted chicken provides the basis for some of our favorite dishes. The chicken is marinated in herbs and citrus before it is rotisserie-roasted. The constant spinning and the perfect balance of acidity leaves the flesh tender and pleasantly astringent. You can buy whole and half chickens to take home.
The Mother Clucker Flautas are particular favorites. Two flour tortillas are rolled up with secret spices and the delicious chicken, then flash-fried and smothered with crema fresca and mellow roasted jalapeno jelly. The tortillas end up crispy, while the chicken stays hot and melts into the creamy and almost-sweet jalapenos. Delicious.
Cilantro chefs know how to work a grill and how to treat fish’s tricky protein with respect. The day’s catch has good grill marks and is perfectly done. Our favorite so far is a flaky opakapaka on a bed of garlicky, spicy jicama slaw. (This slaw is so good we often take a to-go tub of it home.)
Taco plates include a trio of soft corn tortillas loaded up with that fantastic rotisserie chicken, al pastor, grilled steak, or roasted vegetables. The veggies aren’t afterthoughts, either: grilled asparagus, zucchini, marinated mushrooms, and roasted green chilis and sweet onion rajas.
Salads are very good, fresh, and big. If you want a protein, you can add pork, chicken, steak, fish, or grilled shrimp. Try the margarita-reminiscent tequila-lime vinaigrette.
The only disappointment here is the burrito. Though giant, it’s stuffed with too much fiesta rice and doesn’t carry the same flavorful punch of the other dishes. Plus, it’s wrapped in paper and served in a paper-lined basket, which we find unnecessarily cumbersome. If they lowered the rice to protein ratio — even if it meant a smaller burrito — and ditched the excessive packaging, we’d likely be enthusiastic fans of this too.
The chips are crisp and not too greasy, and the salsa bar features choices ranging from mild to crazy hot, each incorporating a different combination of the seven or eight different chilis stored above the register. You’ll also find pickled vegetables and — of course — heaps of fresh cilantro. This is a very casual taqueria (paper plates and plastic utensils), clean, boisterous when busy, and brightly painted. The logos and marketing are so clever you could suspect it of being a chain, which it’s not. Too bad. It knocks others out of the water. For a cheap lunch or inexpensive dinner for two to ten, it’s a dearly loved Maui institution and well worth your while.
Address: 170 Papalaua St., Lahaina, HI 96761
Location: Near Foodland
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Hours: M-Sa 11am-9pm; Su 11am-8pm