The chile relleno — a chili stuffed with cheese, battered and fried — is deceptively simple. So, too, was our bracket-style competition, in which regional winners duked it out for the title. As soon as we announced our hunt, a tide of nominations came in the form of emails, Facebook messages, comments and intense conversations. We sorted the nominees, cracked our necks and chowed down.
Our criteria for a good relleno? Stem in, naturally. Good ratio of batter to cheese to pepper, with no one aspect reigning supreme. And whatever the Spanish version of je ne sais quoi is, that x factor that takes the dish from sufficient to sabroso.
The friendly, tattooed waitress at Esmeralda's Mexican Food (328 Grotto St.) assured us that "her mom makes the best chile relleno." Nepotism aside, our first bite revealed she just might be right. Cheese was soft and oozy, complementing the puffy, brown batter and the perfectly cooked pepper. There was a nice bite to the pepper, with a sweet burn of a finish. Not bitter, not too hot. The kind of pepper you want to try when you're looking to level up on your spicy game.
Next up was Pachanga (1802 Fifth St.), where we encountered So. Much. Cheese. We love cheese. Nice eggy batter. Fantastic, zippy, tomatillo sauce. Ultimately, though, the cheese (stringier and a little more mozzarella-y than Esmeralda's) overwhelmed both batter and pepper. We get why this spot is a local favorite, and it's hard to override our love of cheese, but when it comes to the yo no se que (figured out the translation) of a good relleno, Esmeralda's nails it for the win.
Expectation is a double-edged sword: it can elevate the mundane and intensify the disappointing. Never was this more was this true than with Los Gallos Taqueria at the Bayshore Mall. In case you think we've rigged this race, Los Gallos has been a dark horse favorite in the world of Humboldt taco and tamale aficionados for years. When we saw that their rellenos are prepared far in advance of serving, however, our hopes sank. After a tentative mouthful, we put down our forks for the day. Gritty cheese, a rubbery chili, and totally under-seasoned — we were very disappointed.
A chili's throw down Broadway, the seven-minute turnaround at the Speedy Taco food truck (1223 Broadway) yielded a salivation-worthy, deep brown, monster of a chile relleno with a fistful of piping hot corn tortillas to sop up the extra cheese and piquant green sauce. The thick, oozy cheese inside hit every millimeter of umami area on our tongues, and the pepper itself had just the right amount of bite. The slightly soggy batter — perhaps the result of freezing? — wasn't enough to keep the little truck from running over Los Gallos in this round.
We were bombarded with recommendations for La Costa (664 S. Fortuna Blvd), including at least one cryptic message: "Try both kinds." Both kinds? One is a yellow, omelette-y envelope swaddling a pale Anaheim pepper, the other a dark, stout, battered Poblano. Both yielded to our forks with a gush of cheese, and both were swimming in a savory red sauce so thick it could pass for gravy. After sampling (and sampling, and sampling), we chose the thick-battered Poblano.
We gave deep sighs of appreciation when we opened the Taco Loco (955 Main St.) takeaway box and saw the plump, brown-battered chili smothered in green tomatillo sauce. A tinfoil-wrapped package of warm tortillas sat waiting for us to tear, scoop and savor. Lovers of all things green will not be disappointed: You get plenty of pepper per forkful, delightful tomatillo sauce and well-balanced spices. The only misstep was a slightly strange aftertaste, but it could not defeat La Costa's Fortuna-strong contender.
Controversy overshadowed the Arcata bracket, as many declared the original eggy, crepe-like entry from Fiesta Grill and Cantina (3525 Janes Road) inadequate competition against the traditional battered and fried version from Carmela's (1288 G St.). So we called a do-over, this time including the late nomination Valley Azteca (5000 Valley West Blvd #6) for a three-way cage match.
Fiesta Grill and Cantina's traditional, stem in, battered and fried chile relleno delivered, arriving dotted with squeaky queso fresco and stuffed with more. The batter itself was puffy, a wee bit chewy (reminded us of inari skin) and sodden with rich red sauce.
Just up the road, Valley Azteca's house version was made with an Anaheim pepper. We chose not to be disappointed that it was of the eggy, omelette-y variety, instead focusing on how the Anaheim's bite was complemented by the green onion garnish. The lightness of this chile relleno was refreshing. Rather than disqualifying its entry, we subcategorized Valley Azteca as a top choice for your Mexican brunch. Hey, it opens at 9 a.m.
It's hard to describe how much we appreciated the savory sauce the monster from Carmela's swam in. We plucked scraps of pepper and onion from its container and savored every last bit. One of our reviewers described the chile relleno itself as a "Mexican ravioli." That dense, sharp, ricotta-like cheese and savory batter! The flavor was well layered and subtle.
This was a nail-biter, even with Valley Azteca on the sidelines (brunch!), down to a bite-by-bite comparison of Carmela's and Fiesta. With just the tip of each pepper left, we called in tie-breakers from our production staff, who dutifully picked up their forks, only to reach another stalemate. Too close to call? Fervent analysis covered the merits of a bitter pepper, the ratio of batter to cheese, whether accompanying rice and beans should factor in. In the end, Fiesta Grill and Cantina's traditional cheese won out.In the end, our journey took us full circle to Esmeralda's, to the flirty pepper that haunted our tongues at each stop. We ordered another — you know, just to make sure — and though we tortured ourselves imagining the Fiesta batter on the firm, flavorful chili before us, Esmeralda's was the gloves-in-the-air winner. Enjoy your title, champ — and get ready to defend it.