As the reopening of Los Cilantros approached, owner and chef Dilsa Lugo was excited for her restaurant’s return to its original brick-and-mortar location. Her mind raced with all of the menu possibilities now that she had a full kitchen at her disposal. It turns out many of her old neighbors were just as excited to see her back. 

“It has been very nice to return,” Lugo said. “I live here, my kids go to school here, and the neighbors who remember us from before have been bringing me welcome-back flowers. It’s really been heartwarming.”

Five of her former employees also returned to work at Los Cilantros upon its return to Berkeley after a three-year hiatus. 

Los Cilantros: Open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sundays 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the La Peña Cultural Center at 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley;

Los Cilantros reopened in the La Peña Cultural Center in September, and the restaurant previously occupied the space from 2014 to 2020. When COVID-19 shutdowns began, the restaurant closed but Lugo kept cooking to feed the unsheltered community, nurses and doctors and others in need. Around the same time, La Peña Cultural Center closed the space for necessary renovations. Lugo then opened a kiosk in the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace food court in San Francisco, while also maintaining her catering business. 

She was always planning on returning to Berkeley but the timing was fortuitous as the La Cocina food hall shuttered at the beginning of September. 

While she was thankful to have a place to go during the pandemic, operating out of the La Cocina Marketplace was taxing. She had to travel to San Francisco every day, and the food was served from a stand in the hall while the kitchen space and walk-in refrigerators were on the second floor. Because of the limited space and appliances at the kiosk, Lugo had to pare down the menu to ceviche, tacos and other easy-to-prepare items. 

Gabriela Martinez and her husband Nathan Harding visited Los Cilantros from Oakland. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“At the stand in San Francisco we couldn’t make a fish taco, we had to keep it simple,” Lugo said. “Now, we can make everything”

From family recipes to a flourishing business

Lugo, who is originally from Cuernavaca in the Mexican state of Morelos, learned to cook from her mother. Her father was a corn farmer, and her mother taught her about using different varieties of corn and how to use the different parts of the vegetable in various dishes. 

After she moved to Berkeley with her family, she did some small catering jobs, making tamales out of her home. In 2007 she tried out for the San Francisco-based La Cocina’s incubator program for immigrant women entrepreneurs and was accepted. 

While Lugo could cook, La Cocina helped her get invaluable training in running a restaurant kitchen and managing a business and staff. 

One new item on the menu at Los Cilantros is a chile relent (left), and the restaurant also serves handmade tortillas made with a mix of yellow and blue corn. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“They really do a great job of giving you help where you need it,” she said. “Whatever aspect of the business you need to learn or if you need advice, they are an amazing resource.”

Lugo says she also learned a great deal from La Cocina about ingredient selection and sourcing, and she frequents at least three local farmers markets and Berkeley Bowl to stock her shelves. She uses dairy products from Straus Family Creamery and gets various Mexican varieties of cheese from Sonoma-based Queso Salazar. She also uses Mary’s Organic Chicken, Niman Ranch meats and products from Watsonville’s Happy Boy Farms.

“I really love meeting the farmers and other producers, and using as many local, California products as possible,” Lugo said. “I want to use all different corn varieties, and make different authentic dishes from various regions of Mexico.”

First, she launched Los Cilantros as a catering company. Next, she set up shop at various farmers markets, before finally opening the restaurant at La Peña in 2014.  

Los Cilantros 2.0

Now, with the purchase of new equipment and upgrades to the kitchen at La Peña Cultural Center, Lugo is combining her family’s food traditions with her training from La Cocina and more than 15 years in the food industry to realize her vision for Los Cilantros fully. 

(Left) Lugo commissioned a small corn grinder, or molino, from a maker in Mexico to process their own nixtamalized corn to make masa for fresh tortillas. (Right) Los Cilantros cook Reina Rivas makes handmade corn tortillas. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

For the reopening, Lugo commissioned a small corn grinder, called a molino, from a maker in Mexico. It was then disassembled and the family brought it to the United States packed in a handful of suitcases. Now, Lugo can grind and process her own nixtamalized corn dough to make masa for fresh tortillas. 

“In Morelos, there is mountain and jungle, very diverse geography, and so there are lots of different ingredients available,” Lugo said. “My family, we lived on a farm and we ate all different kinds of things with the best ingredients, and we always ate fresh tortillas.”

Accordingly, Lugo insists on making tortillas from scratch, even if it takes a great deal of time and labor. 

“Labor is more expensive and ingredients are more expensive these days,” she said. “But it’s important to me that we make our own tortillas by hand.”

Mexican Loteria cards are used instead of table numbers at Los Cilantros in Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Los Cilantros favorites from the first stint at La Peña are back, like fish tacos, sopes and enchiladas with mole. New to the menu are a chile relleno, aguachile tostada and tortilla soup. Lugo also pays attention to offering plenty of salads and vegetarian items, like tlacoyitos, a less common Mexican dish made with masa but thicker than a typical tortilla and filled with requeson, similar to ricotta cheese, and the herb epazote. It is then topped with cheese, sour cream and guajillo salsa.

The excitement of being back in Berkeley with a full kitchen and dining room has not subsided, and Lugo continues to plot the next improvements. 

“I also want to start doing brunch soon,” Lugo said. “We’ll have things like a mushroom omelet with mole, yogurt with fruit, but more tropical and typical Mexican fruits like papaya, mango and passion fruit, and cafe de olla [Mexican spiced coffee].” 

Los Cilantros owner and chef Dilsa Lugo has plans for new menu items that showcase lesser-known regional Mexican dishes. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

As Nosh editor, Tovin Lapan oversees food coverage across Oaklandside and Berkeleyside. His journalism career started in Guadalajara, Mexico as a reporter for an English-language weekly newspaper. Previously, he served as the multimedia food reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and covered a variety of beats including immigration and agriculture at the Las Vegas Sun and Santa Cruz Sentinel. His work has also appeared in Fortune, The Guardian, U.S. News & World Report, San Francisco Chronicle, and Lucky Peach among other publications. Tovin likes chocolate and seafood, but not together.