Berkeley’s Los Cilantros reopened its Shattuck Avenue location last Wednesday after a three-year closure.
The restaurant, sandwiched between La Peña Cultural Center and The Starry Plough Pub, shut its doors March 15, 2020 due to COVID-19; however, that didn’t stop Los Cilantros’ owner, Dilsa Lugo, from feeding the community.
“We were closed to the public, but we were cooking for the food bank and people in need, like the homeless and nurses and doctors, for more than a year,” Lugo said. “Then we had to close because of construction work in the kitchen.”
Lugo opened Los Cilantros in 2007 as a catering company. She cited support from La Cocina, a San Francisco-based business incubator, as an important contributor to her restaurant’s inception.
La Cocina provides women who are low-income, immigrant entrepreneurs with the resources they need to launch their own small businesses. According to their mission, they offer technical assistance and commercial kitchen space, as well as an incubator program to “launch, grow and formalize food business.”
“I go over there and they provide all the systems. They have a kitchen where you can go and prep everything and the catering,” Lugo said. “It’s an amazing organization.”
Los Cilantros moved into its Berkeley storefront in 2014, after seven years of catering and vending at farmer’s markets. At the core of its Mexican cuisine are fresh, high-quality ingredients and homemade tortillas, according to Lugo.
During the hiatus, Los Cilantros was able to purchase a small “molino” — a mill — to grind corn into “masa,” the tortilla base. Lugo recalled grinding masa at the large molinos near her hometown in Morelos, Mexico. Lugo noted that “you can taste the difference” in tortillas with fresh masa.
“I love to make my own handmade tortillas and the only thing that I was missing is to get a molino from Mexico, so now we are doing tortillas from scratch,” Lugo said. “Everything on the menu has something with corn.”
Los Cilantros’ menu is entirely gluten-free, and Lugo is excited to offer more vegetarian options and salads with the reopening.
She expressed gratitude for her staff — nearly all of whom are returning employees that worked alongside Lugo pre-closure — as well as the Berkeley community for welcoming Los Cilantros back.
“We live in Berkeley, my kids go to Berkeley schools, so I’m happy to be close to everyone,” Lugo said. “Reopening after three years and seeing a lot of neighbors say hi and bring flowers and just saying how much they miss our food — it has been so exciting.”