Friday, July 24, 2015

Arcata's Best Chile Relleno, Determined

Posted By on Fri, Jul 24, 2015 at 2:24 PM

Three chiles enter, all leave ... in our stomachs. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Three chiles enter, all leave ... in our stomachs.

Okay, lovers of Mexican food, we heard you. You said last week's entry into the Arcata bracket, the eggy, crepe-y delish dish from Fiesta Grill and Cantina, was inadequate competition against the traditional battered and fried version from Carmela's. So we returned to that foggy college town and made the rounds again, this time including the late nomination Valley Azteca (5000 Valley West Blvd #6).

Mmm, squeaky traditional cheese. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Mmm, squeaky traditional cheese.

First things first. We called Fiesta Grill and Cantina (3525 Janes Road) and demanded (okay, asked politely) a traditional, stem in, battered and fried chile relleno. And it delivered. Man, did it deliver. Check out that squeaky queso fresco dotting the delicious, chewy batter. The batter itself was puffy, a wee bit chewy (reminded us of inari), sodden with rich red sauce. It included a side of above-par rice and beans that had just the tiniest hint of garlic. Well worth dipping into with bits of torn-off tortilla.

Mexican brunch? We say yes. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • Mexican brunch? We say yes.

Just up the road, Valley Azteca proved to be cool and pleasant respite from the week's hot weather. It was our first visit and the tastefully decorated white cantina-esque walls and dark leather booths immediately impressed us. We bellied up to the bar while waiting for our order. The owner explained that the 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 after the solidity of other entrants. Our call? Valley Azteca for your Mexican food brunch, every time. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant opens at 9 a.m. and appears to offer a nice selection of vegetarian items as well.

A deep, dark, satisfying relleno with cilantro garnish. - JENNIFER FUMIKO CAHILL
  • Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
  • A deep, dark, satisfying relleno with cilantro garnish.

Our final entrant was that student stand-by, Carmela's (1288 G St.). It's hard to describe how much we appreciated the savory sauce this monster was swimming in. We plucked scraps of pepper and onion from its container and savored every last bit of it, holding back from licking the plate only by sheer force of will. As for the chile relleno itself, well, one of our reviewers described it as a "Mexican ravioli." Mmm, that dense, sharp, ricotta-like cheese! That savory batter! We agreed that the flavor in this particular dish was well layered and subtle.

The winner ...

So, we're not going to lie to you guys, this was a nail-biter. We decided to skate controversy and put Valley Azteca on the sidelines (again, brunch!), doing a bite-by-bite comparison of Carmela's and Fiesta. With just the tip of each pepper left, we had to call in a tie-breaker. Our production staff left their computers and dutifully picked up their forks, only to reach another stalemate. Too close to call? A fervent analysis began, citing the merits of a bitter pepper, the ratio of batter to cheese, whether the accompanying rice and beans should factor in. In the end, that traditional cheese and spectacular rice and beans won out. Congratulations Fiesta Grill and Cantina! Thank you for bringing your A game, and welcome to the lightning round. We will crown #humboldtsbestchilerelleno in our annual Best of Humboldt edition — on newsstands August 13.

But wait ... did we miss a restaurant? We saved room for more. Any last-minute entries? We want to be thorough. Email, comment, hit us up on Facebook or Twitter. Let's do this!
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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Chile vs. Chile: Fortuna Strong

Posted By on Sun, Jul 12, 2015 at 10:09 AM

The Fortuna contingent brought it hard this week, forcing us to revise our standards. Two different restaurants produced three very different rellenos, with a spectrum of chiles, sauces and batters. All were delicious, and as such we’ve decided to be more inclusive. There is no black and white when it comes to pepper, cheese, batter and salsa: the world deserves a relleno rainbow.
When we put the call for regional nominations out on Facebook, we were bombarded with recommendations for La Costa (664 S. Fortuna Blvd), including at least one cryptic message: “Try both kinds.” Both kinds? What witchery was this? So we called to inquire and the nice lady assured that they did, in fact, have two different types of chile rellenos to choose from. We got them both: a yellow, omelette-y envelope swaddling a pale Anaheim pepper, and its dark, stout masa-battered counterpoint with the traditional Poblano within. Both yielded to our forks with a gush of cheese, and both were swimming in a savory reddish sauce so thick it could pass for gravy. After sampling (and sampling, and sampling) both, we chose the thick-battered Poblano version as an in-house favorite, pitting it against….

Taco Loco (955 Main Street), is another Friendly City favorite that came highly recommended. We gave a deep sigh of appreciation when we opened the takeaway box and saw the plump, brown-battered chile 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 by Taco Loco’s dish: you get a lot of pepper per forkful, the tomatillo sauce is delightful, and the chef definitely knows their way around a spice cabinet. The only off-note was a slightly strange aftertaste, leading us to think their grease traps might need cleaning.

So, ultimately, Fortuna’s best chile relleno is also the fan favorite: La Costa! Felicidades to the Friendly City, and welcome to the big time! In a few weeks we’ll pit your winner against Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville, for the final determination of who makes #humboldtsbestchilerelleno!
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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Chile vs. Chile: The Fast Food Edition

Posted By on Sun, Jul 5, 2015 at 4:33 PM

Expectation is a double-edged sword when it comes to experience: it can both 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 aficionados for years. Not only does it occasionally have carne cabeza, that delicious, tender face meat, but the tamales and sauce are a cut above your average mall food. When we saw that their rellenos are prepared far in advance of serving, however, our hopes sank. We each took one tentative mouthful, and then put down our forks for the day. Limp, watery, rubbery, under-seasoned, with gritty cheese and a garnish of browning guacamole and bland beans — to say we were disappointed would be an understatement. But, after all, we choose chile rellenos as our point of comparison for Mexican food in Humboldt County, and perhaps they’re a dish too far for your average lunch-on-the-run joint …

Los Gallos does garnish right, at least. - DREW HYLAND
  • Drew Hyland
  • Los Gallos does garnish right, at least.
… or are they? A 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 one off-note was the slightly soggy batter, which, if we had to guess, likely came from the dish having been frozen. After all, we know they’re not making the whole thing from scratch in that little trailer.

Dense and cheesy at Speedy Taco. - GRANT GOFORTH
  • Dense and cheesy at Speedy Taco.

And the winner is ...

Did you really have to ask? It’s Speedy Taco! Congratulations guys, you’ve made it to the next round!
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