Turning to cookbooks for reference, there seems to be no consensus on the original chile relleno, which has its beginnings in pre-Columbian Latin America, but has taken any number of forms since. The most well-known version is said to have originated in the Mexican city of Puebla, resulting in a poblano pepper getting stuffed with cheese or meat before being dipped in an egg or masa batter and fried.
Cocina Prehispánica: Pre-Hispanic Cooking, published in 1974, recommends one "crumble some fresh cheese, chop some chenopodium leaves and mix with the cheese," before frying in lard, then wrapping with tortillas dipped in boiling salted butter. Published in 1898, Encarnación Pinedo's seminal cookbook El Cocinero Español offers multiple versions, some fried with an egg batter, some stuffed with artichokes, shrimp, cabbage or sardines.
Basically, there's no bad way to stuff something good into something great and then fry it into something awesome. Here's what we found.
Sold for $9.49, the plate of chile rellenos at Jose Muldoon's (222 N. Tejon St., josemuldoons.com) features two long Anaheim peppers glowing a dull green through a golden, beer-battered crust. They sit, one gently resting on the other, next to a delicious Spanish rice and scoop of thick black beans that taste like fruity-and-hot black pepper.
But as good as each of those sides is, they will never compare to the main event, which kitchen manager Adam Hiles says is the original recipe from when the restaurant first opened.
Just cutting into one feels a bit like breaking something beautiful and delicate, and I'm mildly ashamed to send its steaming cheese oozing on to the plate after defiling a crust that cuts like fried paper. It's the fruit with a skin of gold, not to mention a heart of mild Monterey Jack that serves as a creamy background to highlight all the buttery juices.
It looks bad for you, and it tastes bad for you, but in a redemptive way, where no ingredient bullies another and you can really taste the individual parts. You could top it with the accompanying green chili, and I would never judge you for that, but the relleno is perfect plain and even better cold the next day.
The rellenos at Crystal Park Cantina (178 Crystal Park Road, Manitou Springs, crystalparkcantina.com) are the definition of a gilded lily: New Mexico green chilies are stuffed with a four-cheese blend, rolled and fried into a crispy shell, and then smothered in either your choice of sauce — pork green chili, red mole or tomatillo alfredo — or all three. Naturally, we did the latter, alongside a creamy saffron rice and zesty pinto beans, creating a $14 overindulgence that left me very full and very happy and very much wondering how to define what I just ate.
I say this because our plate of two crispy shells covered in three sauces, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and pico de gallo could've been green-chile enchiladas or anything else that tastes ambiguously amazing. With the variety of toppings, no consistent texture came together, other than wet-and-tasty, and it was impossible to pick out individual flavors over the torrent of chocolate and spice and cream and oil and meat.
None of this is to impugn the general effect of the dish, which I'd happily eat every night for the rest of my life. With the impossibility of picking out the peppers' flavor from everything else on the plate, however, it's not where I'd go for the classic.
The king of tacos does more than that. El Taco Rey (330 E. Colorado Ave., eltacorey.com), that downtown classic with a reputation far larger than its closet-like dining room, sells combination dinners like the No. 10 for $8.99, and it's quite the value.
You get a large scoop of Spanish rice, beans with cheddar and onions, and two fat logs of fried pepper next to a cup of some of the best green chili around. It's hard to determine the origin of the recipe, says president Jana Mitchell, because "it depends on who you ask," she says. "If you ask my parents where that recipe comes from, my mom will say her, or my dad says it's from him. So that's a hard question."
We took ours to-go, since seating is always at a premium. The rellenos came with a thick, dark brown crust that was crisp and perfectly oily. Even when eaten plain — which is what I recommend doing, like a savory pastry — the fruit's flavor is not strong, and the cheese stuffing is unevenly distributed throughout. Made with eggs, the crust of this thing is like frybread or a funnel cake. Crunching through it to the hot insides just feels decadent.
The sum of the parts never beats the whole of the other contenders, but cutting your pepper into bites and dipping it into the green chili is a fast path to (moderate) happiness.
The minimally appointed dining room at Señor Manuel Mexican Cuisine (4660 N. Nevada Ave., 598-3033) still feels a bit like you're eating in a friend's basement rec room, but the menu goes out of its way to make you feel comfortable. "Have you had our chile rellenos before?" it asks, before delivering the pitch: "Our award-winning chile rellenos are unique. We wrap a mild green chile around a generous chunk of Monterrey Jack [sic] cheese, embed it in an egg soufflé, and smother it with chile con queso and more cheese."
Belying such confidence, our plate of rellenos with rice and beans ($10.95) arrived like it had been made for the table before us and kept under a broiler the whole time. To the restaurant's credit, the plate was rip-roaring hot and so was everything on it, but that meant a heavy crust of dry food sat over everything. The beans had been heated into near-liquid.
For the relleno itself, I make no comment on the "award-winning" assertion. Manager Mark Hernandez says it's an original recipe that hails from an area near Acapulco de Juárez in Mexico. I can only say that thems who like a gloppy mess of puffy egg covered in a sauce of something red and sharply sour — with strips of green pepper floating somewhere in it — will do well.