Mexican restaurants here serve two styles of chile rellenos. Which one you prefer largely depends on how much you appreciate the lip-stinging sensation of a chili pepper. Timid palates might veer for the mild Anaheims, coated in an eggy omelet and laden with melted cheese. They’re usually found on combination plates. I find the texture of those too squeaky, the flavor too mild. More adventurous palates will steer to the snappy poblano rellenos made with the dark green chili pepper — a poblano sometimes is called a pasilla — stuffed with cheese, lightly battered and fried, and coated in sauce. On many menus, they’re called “original” chile rellenos. The scoville units may not leave you writhing with tongue burn, but the poblano packs just enough spice to make your palate pay attention.
Defining why menus here include both versions — sometimes on the same menu — takes a food historian or someone with deep knowledge of local Mexican dining. I turned to Ruben Arias Jr., who manages his family’s 34-year-old chain of El Toro restaurants, including a newly opened Puyallup outpost. Arias explained that as chile rellenos headed north from Mexico, they received an Anaheim chili makeover decades ago. “Because it funneled through California, we picked up Americanized versions,” explained Arias. However, as American palates have expanded and demanded more challenging flavors, “original” poblano rellenos have found their way here, he said.
Prompted by an inquiry in 2011 from reader Jerry Burg, a home cook from Anderson Island who has nearly perfected his homemade chile rellenos recipe, I conducted a year of foodsploring, searching for the best version of poblano rellenos in local restaurants.
I found similarities at every restaurant, but differences, too — and something I found confusing. At some restaurants, the poblano rellenos were called “pasilla,” which is a misnomer, say chili pepper experts I contacted. Pasilla are dried peppers that are dark brown or red – that doesn’t sound anything like the dark green chili peppers local restaurants are using. When served as chile rellenos in the United States, if the chili is called “pasilla” and they’re dark green, they’re most likely poblanos, confirmed food writer and chili pepper expert Mike Hultquist, owner of the website chilipeppermadness.com (his site is an amazing resource for chili enthusiasts – check it out). Wrote Hultquist, “I wouldn’t be surprised by the confusion. Some peppers are called different names depending on the country, and sometimes even the region.”
A few tips for ordering rellenos to make sure you’re getting the right one: Be sure to specify you want the poblano or Anaheim. However, not every restaurant offers both. If you order a combination plate with a chile relleno, it most likely will be an Anaheim with that squeaky omelet coating. For the poblano version, look under the “specialties” menu for “original chile rellenos” or look for the key words “poblano” or “pasilla.”
Thanks to Jerry for the question – love it when readers send me on a dining mission. Have a mission or a dining question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Vuelve a la Vida
5310 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253-473-7068. Note: Served Thursdays only
Not only is Vuelve a la Vida a destination for some of the most authentic Mexican dining in town, it’s where you’ll find the city’s best chile relleno. The dish is served only on Thursdays at this Tacoma institution that proudly declares via posted signs, “no chips and salsa.” Vuelve’s relleno carried just the right kind of batter and oozed a fair quantity of cheese. Be on the watch, though, for the toothpicks used to hold together the chili. Served with rice, beans and corn tortillas, the $6.95 chile relleno at Vuelve was the best deal I found ($8.95 for two). In fact, plenty of the menu is priced below the competition. Get yourself there.
1001 W. Main St., Centralia, 360-736-7756
The chile relleno at La Tarasca in Centralia is my go-to in the entire region because the ranchero sauce is so much more flavorful than the competition, but it’s quite a drive to get there. Bonus: The restaurant makes its own corn tortillas and a mole sauce that is so good it could change your life. This restaurant is worth the field trip. $10.95. Here’s my full review of La Tarasca from January. Also worth a drive to Centralia is Boccata.
Six locations, addresses at eltorofamily.com. The newest location opened in January at 12115 Canyon Road E., Puyallup, 253-256-4639
At El Toro, the poblano relleno was served with a tamale. Both versions were prepared just the way I like: The poblano had snap and heat, came in a well-seasoned, battered jacket, and was nicely coated — but not drenched — in a spicy sauce. The cheese oozed exactly the way it should. The tamale was tender and tasty – the ratio of meat-to-masa was just right. $12.99
4102 S. 56th St., Tacoma, 253-474-5593
4628 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor, 253-851-8464
The chile relleno at Moctezuma’s in Tacoma yielded a pleasant snap and a flavor bordering on raw and grassy — one of the most assertive poblanos sampled for this report. The texture was more resilient, which made me think the kitchen undercooked the chili just slightly, which gave it that more robust flavor, too. I liked that. $13.99.
La Fondita Proctor
2620 Proctor St., Tacoma, 253-752-2878
The flavor was great — the batter was well-seasoned and the chili offered plenty of lip-stinging heat — but there was too much cheese on the plate with an unpalatable orange, oily sheen. The rice on the side was chewy. $13.95
2630 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-471-2224
The chile relleno came with an eggy battered coating that suffered from a sauce that was too heavy, making the dish limp and soupy. Another problem: The kitchen forgot to remove the seed pod. Chili seeds are not delicious, in case you were wondering. I like Tacos Guaymas for a lot of other reasons – their carnitas is a big one. Try it. They have a great salsa bar, too. $9.95.
506 N. Meridian, Puyallup, 253-845-2040
Was this a chile relleno or huevos rancheros? The dish had the strangest composition – a chili layered with a fried egg, your choice of meat (I picked carnitas), a heavy layer of cheese, and a ranchero sauce. Sort of a relleno casserole? It was interesting, but a bit too squeaky from a heavy layer of cheese that wasn’t quite melted. The menu had a lot of typos, which may bother some diners more than others. I’m not picky about that for a number of reasons, but I know plenty of diners who are. $8.99.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or email@example.com. But wait until after Feb. 21, she’s on vacation -making cinnamon rolls and trying to make the perfect chile rellenos. She intends to avoid all restaurants for exactly six days.