Cilantro's sweetens local Mex scene 

Entrees are good, but dessert makes it stand out.

We tried out the newest of yet another one of these "traditional" Mexican restaurants to open in Central Arkansas, and to our surprise we discovered one of the best dessert items to be found in any eatery around here, Mexican or otherwise.

The Cilantro Grill's menu says its pecan cheesecake is homemade, and our waiter insisted that was true. All we can say is, three "Oles" to the pastry chef. We could imagine coming to Cilantro's just for this decadent offering, with a handful of pecans covering a heavenly cheesecake and chocolate sauce and a lighter chocolaty sauce drizzled around the plate, plus the requisite whipped cream and a strawberry to boot.

See, we love our cheesecake. We've been known to have Carnegie Deli cheesecake airmailed to Little Rock for special occasions we love it so much. So, cheesecake has to be darned good to get our attention, and Cilantro's was that good.

What about the Mexican food, you ask?

It was good, too. None of the entrees stood out, but what we sampled was satisfying.

What did stand out were the great prices for some of the better items we had, such as the tableside-made guacamole ($5.99), which is four bucks cheaper than the exact same preparation done at a highfalutin Mexican joint in midtown Little Rock and every bit as good) to the Cilantro's Margarita — made, we were told, with three different tequilas including Patron — that came in under $6 and was as good a margarita on the rocks as you'll get in town.

In fact, don't go cheap with the $3.50 basic margarita but splurge a little for the much better Cilantro's specialty. And if neither of those are what you're looking for, they also have fruit-flavored margaritas as well.

Cilantro's will surprise you in more ways. When we pulled up to the modest storefront in Lakewood Village, we expected a taqueria-style place. But once through the door, we were amazed to gaze upon a immense space of tables, booths and bar that stretched deep into a area that could house a bowling alley.

We needed a couple of platoons of Santa Ana's army to tackle the many dinner choices available at Cilantro's. Frankly, trying to pick between various presentations of fajitas, or steak, chicken or seafood — not to mention the basic enchilada platter that always works in a pinch — was too much, so we counted on our waiter for suggestions.

Turns out, he said, he's a gringo from Grapevine and the only seafood he even cares for is shrimp when it accompanies a crawfish boil, so we were on our own if we wanted to try any of the seafood dishes. The camarones de ajo (a delightful garlicky butter sauce poured over eight large shrimp) won out, though we were awfully tempted to try the salmon tacos. Tortillas did not accompany the dish, but they should; luckily, we had some with our other specialty so our shrimp eater didn't go lacking.

Our honest waiter was keen on the chicken version of the ajo, but he also gave high marks to the chile Colorado, so we took that route. We've had better, to be honest, as we'd hoped for a spicier, thicker sauce (this was like red enchilada sauce), and the steak was partially ground. The dish worked perfectly with the freshly steamed flour tortillas that came with it, but we like a chunkier cut of beef in our Colorado.

Both dinner orders were served on modern, rectangular plates sectioned with rice and, in the case of the shrimp, some perfectly steamed vegetables. The rice that came with the shrimp was flavored with a broth that took basic Mexican rice to a whole new level.

Not so with the chile Colorado plate, however. For that, we got the usual refried beans and the orange-tinted rice.

It was only when that fabulous dessert came that Cilantro's firmly separated itself from our usual Mexican haunts.

Count us in to return if nothing else for more tableside guac, that awesome margarita and pecan cheesecake.

But if American-style cheesecake seems oddly placed among tacos and burritos, there are Mexican desserts like the "choco" flan.

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