If the idea of fast, inexpensive Mexican food conjures up images of Taco Bell, and the relative formality of something like Moe's or Chipotle still feels like fast food. New Haven actually has something a step just below a fancy, sit-down Mexican meal. At Cilantro Fresh Mexican Grill, your order is made fresh, but not right under your nose.
Cilantro eschews the assembly line in favor of a more static menu, but the multitude of choices should please just about anyone. Vegetarian options include sweet potato taco with spicy sour cream, $2.75; and a veggie burrito with peppers, onions, cilantro rice, corn, black or pinto beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream, $7.50. A traditional burrito consists of chicken or steak, cilantro rice, black or pinto beans, onions and pico degallo, for $7.50. A gringo style taco is what a Taco Bell crunchy taco supreme would be if it were made with real food, with your choice of taco (chicken, steak, carnitas or shrimp) in a hard shell, with lettuce, tomato, sour cream and shredded cheese, for $2.95. I happen to be a fan of Taco Bell, and all my fond memories of crunchy tacos will never compare to this creation.
Cilantro offers a few fresh sauces to ladle into a small cup, as well as bottles of Cholula and Tabasco. As a side, we ordered cilantro rice and refried beans ($2.95), which was great for dipping tortilla chips, as both of us got a complimentary bag.
For dessert, an order of warm, sugary churros hit the spot ($3.50). We washed it all down with fountain sodas (small, $1.75; large, $1.95), but Cilantro also offers Jarritos sodas ($1.95), and beer and wine, too. With a kids' menu and a casual yet clean and cozy feel, Cilantro is great for a quick pop-in for lunch or a night out with the whole family.
CILANTRO FRESH MEXICAN GRILL is at 1158 Whalley Ave., New Haven. Information: 203-389-1212 and cilantrofreshmexicangrill.com.