August 15, 2013 at 2:20 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
‘My passion’
Gladys Fernandez, Cilantro Cocina De Mexico, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, gay news, Washington Blade

Gladys Fernandez says running Cilantro Cocina De Mexico in Rehoboth Beach is exhausting but worth the effort. (Washington Blade photo by Patrick Folliard)

Gladys Fernandez
Cilantro Cocina De Mexico
122A Rehoboth Ave.
Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Opening a restaurant is tough anywhere. But making a go of it in Rehoboth Beach can be even harder. The rents are sky high and you have to make most of your money during the summer season.

But despite the downsides, Gladys Fernandez, owner and executive chef of Cilantro Cocina De Mexico, was up for the challenge. She was certain that the Delaware summer town needed what she had to offer. And now, after serving a steady stream of satisfied customers for just over two years, Fernandez is doubly confident that she made the right decision.

“I’d eaten everywhere in Rehoboth and never encountered the kind of refined, really fresh authentic Mexican cuisine that is my passion,” says Fernandez, a former Arlington resident. “I just knew that if I could find a good spot with some street traffic, the people would come.”

And find she did. Located in the center of town on the south side of busy main drag Rehoboth Avenue, Cilantro (named for the lacey herb used in many Mexican dishes) is housed in a homey green storefront with inviting front and back patios (the back patio with its fairy lights, flowering plants and candle light sconces is especially charming). The inside — divided into dining room, bar and lounge area — is colorful and tastefully decorated with Mexican folkloric art.

“It didn’t always look like this,” says Fernandez, 49. “When I signed the lease, the interior was painted in dark, murky tones and there was a huge mural of a swamp on the wall. Not a happy place, but we’ve changed all that.”

Fernandez describes her cuisine as strictly Mexican — the real thing, not commercial but homemade from the cocina (kitchen). “La comida preparada en el momento,” she says. “Every single dish is made one at a time. Not easy when you have a party of 10, but it makes all the difference.”

Her specialties include Chiles Reellenos Adelita (a fabulous stuffed pepper), and the fluffy overstuffed Taquitos Dorados de la Merced. You won’t find a crispy taco here. Currently, she’s expanding the moderately priced menu to include more seafood offerings.

Born in Mexico City into a family originally from Puebla (a southern Mexican state known for its tasty amalgam of pre-Hispanic and Spanish foods), Fernandez learned to cook at her grandmother Matilde’s side.

“She was an amazing cook,” she says. “She used only fresh ingredients and consistently turned out delicious food. We’re a big family (Fernandez is the oldest of eight children), so basically my grandmother was cooking all day and night. Now I’m doing the same but maybe a little more gourmet.”

Shortly after arriving in D.C. in 1981, Fernandez went to work at a busy Mexican restaurant in Adams Morgan. She remembers her first night on the job thinking, “Well, if they believe this is authentic Mexican food, they’re sadly mistaken. I can do much better.”

Over the years she worked mainly as a server before opening her own Mexican restaurant in Arlington and later a bar in Adams Morgan where she learned the demands of owning businesses. She sold both ventures in 1997, but always harbored ambitions “of doing the restaurant thing one more time, but differently and better.”

For Fernandez, Cilantro is the opportunity to get it right.

She credits her longtime girlfriend Yadira Mora with turning her on to Rehoboth Beach early in their relationship. “We’ve always been happy in Rehoboth, and I love having a business here,” Fernandez says. “From the start, Rehoboth’s LGBT community has supported us. We’ve always felt extremely welcomed and appreciated.”

For Rehoboth restaurateurs, the winters are typically slow, but summers are brutally busy. Fernandez works from morning until midnight or later seven days a week.

“Even though Cilantro has passed its second birthday and is doing very well, Gladys still wants to be there at all time to make sure everything is done just so. She never stops,” says Mora. “I call her la mujer maravilla [wonder woman]!”

Fernandez concedes that living and working together isn’t always easy, but it works for them. “I’m in the kitchen cooking and Yadira is in the front of the house seating and attending to customers. An entire shift can pass with us not seeing each other.”

Ultimately, nothing makes Fernandez happier than when a customer compliments her on the food or drink whether it’s her exquisitely fresh ceviche or delicious house margarita made with fresh squeezed lime juice and agave nectar. Those moments, she says, make all the long hours and headaches worth it.

“Cilantro is the result of love,” adds Fernandez. “For my girlfriend who introduced me to Rehoboth and my lifelong love for authentic Mexican cuisine.”

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