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Wednesday, October 01, 2014, 6:07 a.m.
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Cilantros' twist adds extra zing

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published May 15, 2014 at 2:36 a.m.

Guacamole is made fresh at the table at Cilantros Grill in North Little Rock.

Cilantros Grill

Address: Lakewood Village Shopping Park, 2629 Lakewood Village Drive, North Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 812-0040

Cilantros Grill took seed mere weeks ago, but it already appears in full bloom.

With fresh, proudly plated food served by a friendly, competent staff, the Mexican restaurant in North Little Rock's Lakewood Village runs as well, if not better than, many established eateries. We experienced no opening jitters during two visits -- one at dinner and one at lunch.

According to the mission statement printed on the menu, longtime associates Alejandro Fuentes and Julio Nunez, "after so many years of planning ... are nesting their dream restaurant ... with a special touch of New Mexican cuisine and a combination of traditional flavors." Indeed, expect to see dishes you won't find at most Arkansas authentic Mexican restaurants, including pork chops with chipotle-whisky onions and roasted tilapia with chipotle pico de gallo. The most expensive single entree is $16.99 ($18.50 for double fajitas).

As we had dined at Taste of India, Cilantros' predecessor in the shopping center (where some of the space had apparently been screened off), we were surprised by Cilantros' cavernous interior, which boasts a large main dining room, giant bar and secondary dining space, complete with several large-screen TVs behind the bar. Perhaps the hard wooden chairs and booths aren't the most comfortable seating, but they work in the dim space with bold red and green walls.

Table placards function as the wine/mixed drinks/margaritas menu that includes everything from sangria and tequila sunrises to strawberry, tamarindo, even habanero margaritas. The list doesn't include prices but margaritas are a reasonable $4.50 to $6.99, though the fruity frozen regular and mango sippers were only mildly boozy. Pepsi products, a standard fruit punch and iced tea are $1.99.

The queso ($3.99) is a smooth, just-right white. But don't miss the guacamole that comes with a show (a bargain at $5.99; we know another place that charges about twice that), mashed fresh at the table with avocado and (to your specifications) onion, tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeno.

We'd probably pass on the stuffed jalapenos ($4.99), a three-pepper appetizer, and not just because the odd number makes for couple squabbles. The three bold jalapenos were quite small and the chicken-and-cream-cheese stuffing either didn't have much flavor or it was just overpowered by the zing of the peppers. The mango-jicama slaw did more than pretty up the plate -- it helped put out the flames.

Other appetizers include flautas, shrimp ceviche, two kinds of queso fundido and tamales. Unsalted chips and an oniony, fresh-tasting salsa are complimentary.

Beyond appetizers, other menu categories include soups and salads, tacos, fajitas, "Tradicionales de la casa" and specialties. The Childs Plates ($4-$5.25) section has six options, including the "Angry Birds" -- grilled chicken over fries and covered with cheese sauce.

For dinner, I tried a specialty, the Carne Arrachera ($13.99), a good-size strip of tasty, if slightly tough, lime-seasoned skirt steak, accented with smoky-sweet chipotle caramelized onions that could be rolled in what seemed to be homemade tortillas. The dish was served with better than average, bacony and perhaps beer-y Borracho Beans (translation: "drunk" beans), fluffy Spanish rice and guacamole.

My date chose Chile Verde ($9.99), a plentiful portion of tender pork chunks braised in a tart tomatillo salsa verde, served with rice, cheesy refried beans (actual beans, he was pleased to note, not just a paste that became part of the plate) and tortillas.

A lunch menu of a dozen specials ($6.25-$7.99) is available 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. During a lunch visit, we sampled two such specials, Julio's Special ($7.25) and Carnitas Enchiladas ($6.99), and a specialty, the Salmon Tacos ($12.99).

Julio must be a hungry guy, as his special is a two-plate affair featuring a tasty cheese-cloaked enchilada (red sauce is an option), a toothsome in-husk tamale and a beef-cheese-and-vegetable-packed taco (word to the wise: Eat the taco first before the shell gets soggy), plus rice and beans.

The lively Carnitas Enchiladas featured two corn tortilla bundles packed with pork and topped with tomatillo sauce.

And the soft Salmon Tacos were as impressive to eat as they were to admire, two flour tortillas filled with red chile-rubbed salmon, lettuce, pineapple pico de gallo and avocado, propped up by a metal holder. A side of poblano rice came in the form of a pyramid, almost too cute to eat.

Ending a fine meal on a sweet note, we shared sopapillas ($3.99), four cinnamon-sugared puffed dough triangles with a chocolate drizzle, a pouf of whipped cream and a strawberry slice. Other dessert options ($4.25-$4.99) include pecan cheesecake, traditional flan, Chocoflan and tres leches.

Weekend on 05/15/2014

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