There are chiles rellenos, and then there are chiles rellenos en nogada, a classic variation with a sweet, luxuriant walnut cream sauce. The city’s best relleno is the nogada version served at Manuel’s, both the limestone-walled dining room downtown and the flamboyant place up north; the rich sauce has a dash of brandy, and the shredded-pork filling in the unbattered poblano is rife with raisins and almonds. On Wednesdays after five-thirty, head to busy Güero’s for a vegetarian special of two unbattered roasted poblanos stuffed with crunchy sautéed corn and zucchini and topped with sour cream and Jack cheese. A wonderful mix of ground beef, walnuts, and raisins fills the batter-fried chiles rellenos served in Garibaldi’s gold-and-apricot dining room; the ranchero sauce is nice and tomatoey, but a lava flow of Jack cheese overwhelms everything. An innovative sweet, warm pecan cream sauce (think of it as Texas-style nogada) tops an unbattered poblano at rustic, informal Polvo’s; the ground beef tucked inside provides a savory counterpoint. In the elegant hacienda that is Fonda San Miguel, a smoky-sweet ancho chile encases a tantalizing mix of chicken, olives, and almonds, welcome relief from the battered, deep-fried poblano that is the norm.
The signature baked chiles rellenos at boisterous, welcoming Matt’s Rancho Martinez —garnished with crunchy pecans, raisins, and a cloud of sour cream—are as spectacular on the palate as they are on the plate. Top honors go to the ground-beef entry, a big Anaheim coated in a thin egg batter and topped with a piquant ranchero sauce. Memorable too are the rich flavor and coarse textures in the egg-battered version at retro, red-and-pink Tejano, in old Oak Cliff. Stuffed with a comforting picadillo of ground pork and beef mixed with raisins and crushed almonds, the plump poblano sports a mild ranchero sauce. More omelet-like is the fried batter coating the roasted poblano at rather upscale Nuevo Leon, where a smoky ranchero sauce balances the creamy white cheese oozing from the fat chile.
At G&R Restaurant, a dimly lit room that’s lush with plants and flowers, sublime meat or cheese chiles rellenos set the local standard; made with New Mexico green chiles, they all but melt in your mouth. L&J Café may get points for specifying which menu items are heart-friendly or low-carb, but thankfully, the fat and fine cheese chiles rellenos—though bathed in a thin, tomato-based español sauce with strong vegetable flavors—will never qualify as health food.
A typical response to the first bite of a chile relleno at fiesta-bright Benito’s is a great sigh and rolling of eyes, so extravagant is the experience. Fort Worth’s best example of the genre is a giant roasted poblano encased in a thick but airy egg cocoon and oozing Monterey Jack; the thin red tomato sauce is homey and comforting. At come-as-you-are La Familia, a pretty poblano is roasted and coated with a thin batter before being quickly fried. Filled with smooth, thick white cheese, it’s best covered in the coarse, fresh ranchero sauce, although the tart tomatillo is a smart foil for the mellow cheese.
For the best traditional chiles rellenos in town, tuck into the homey ones at Irma’s darling casa. The most popular version is a poblano that’s stuffed with moist, savory ground beef and diced carrots and potatoes, coated in a light egg batter, and fried crisp. Equally wonderful are the unusual seafood chiles rellenos at Maria Selma. The terra-cotta-washed, mirror-filled restaurant has reinvented the dish, packing a poblano with fresh crabmeat and shrimp, dusting it in breadcrumbs, and flash-frying it; a puddle of roasted-red-bell-pepper sauce sets off the creative concoction. The chile en nogada is a specialty at shorts-and-sandals-casual Pico’s, where plump poblanos bulging with succulent shredded pork are cloaked in a rich walnut cream sauce and garnished with ruby pomegranate seeds that glow like Christmas lights.
Like everything else at Las Cazuelas, where you can watch the staff making fresh tortillas while you eat, the surprisingly light, hotter-than-usual chiles rellenos—stuffed with white cheese or picadillo and topped with a poblano sauce—taste as if they were prepared just moments before being served.
RIO GRANDE VALLEY
At Pharr’s Poncho—which from the outside looks like a stack of brightly colored children’s building blocks—the lightly battered and fried chiles rellenos come with three sauces (pico de gallo; a bitter, hearty red-chile; and a nicely tart green tomatillo) for a terrific interplay of flavors.
Is a good chile relleno that difficult to make? Apparently, since the only exceptional one in San Antonio is at casual Tito’s, with its offbeat local art. The near-fluffy, utterly traditional ground-beef filling is spunky, the poblano chile barely gilded with batter, the classic tomato-onion-jalapeño salsa savory and perfectly fresh.
See the Directorio for directions to any of these restaurants.