When the weather gets chilly, it's time to eat chile.
Winters are mild in North Texas (except, it seems, when a big event such as last year's Super Bowl is in town!). But when bitter air swoops through Dallas-Fort Worth, there are few more enjoyable ways to fight back than to fill your belly with something flavorful and warm.
For me, a food that answers that call is a chile relleno -- Spanish for "refilled pepper." The featured ingredient is usually a roasted poblano or New Mexico green chile (sometimes also called an Anaheim) traditionally stuffed with cheese. But it can also be filled with any number of extras, limited only by the cook's imagination.
A chile relleno should not resemble a corn dog. It is not a jalapeño popper on steroids. But otherwise, there aren't too many rules about what makes a good one. It is a gentle dish, lovingly prepared in restaurants and family kitchens across the Southwest.
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Yet until recently it was difficult to find a properly executed relleno in North Texas. A handful of Metroplex restaurants have done it well for years, but others have put forth far less effort, and the result has been plates of what amounts to deep-fried carnival food.
However, a visit to Tarrant-area restaurants in recent weeks indicates that things have taken a turn for the better. Chefs (and ordinary cooks) are experimenting with fillings that include shrimp, brisket, chicken, nuts and raisins.
"We were trying to come up with a vegetarian entree, and that always feels like an afterthought," said Jon Bonnell, owner of Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine in south Fort Worth, where steaks are often the entree of choice. "But what we came up with is a hearty meal."
Bonnell's offers customers a fire-roasted chile relleno stuffed with a "green chile ratatouille" that includes grilled eggplant, zucchini, basil pesto and goat cheese. It is coated with Monterey Jack cheese, drizzled with cream and served on a bed of mild Mexican rice and red sauce.
We went in search of a handful of places that did chile rellenos well. During the past several weeks, we visited restaurants that had been recommended by friends and acquaintances. Our conclusion: There still aren't enough places in Dallas-Fort Worth doing rellenos right. (Could there ever be?) But these are among the places stepping up to the plate.
Peppers as postmodern art
Place: Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine, Fort Worth
The dish: Fire-roasted chile relleno stuffed with grilled vegetables, basil pesto and goat cheese, blanketed with Monterey Jack cheese and roasted again; $15 for lunch, $20 for dinner.
Our take: This version of rellenos is more like the type of food residents of Puebla, Mexico, were eating two centuries ago than what is offered at other eateries today. There's no deep-fried batter, no pool of orange DayGlo cheese. But it's also a forward-looking approach, in the sense that it strips away assumptions about what can be stuffed into a pepper. It reaches out to health-conscious eaters, with an emphasis on veggies rather than meat and saturated fat.
It starts with an enormous, almost round poblano pepper that's roasted, peeled and filled with what Bonnell describes as a green chile ratatouille that includes all kinds of good things from the farm, such as eggplant and zucchini, as well as basil pesto and goat cheese. The chile is then roasted a second time -- no batter, no frying.
It is tucked inside a blanket of Monterey Jack cheese and served in a white bowl shaped like a Texas star, on a bed of velvetlike Mexican rice and a light red sauce.
Poblanos typically don't have the heat of a New Mexico chile, so this version of chile rellenos has virtually no kick to it. But Bonnell likes poblanos because they are thick and meaty, and available year-round.
I arrive on a weekday at lunch and, because reservations are recommended in the dining area, I ask for a seat at the otherwise empty bar. (It's a work day, so my drink of choice is a diet soda.) Bonnell's doesn't miss a detail. The presentation is edible art. The food is filling and completely satisfying -- and yet because the dish is composed of few, if any, empty calories, I can go back to work without craving an afternoon nap.
The only criticism I can offer is about the price -- at $15 for lunch or $20 for dinner, Bonnell's chile relleno is anything but a peasant dish. But hey, this dish has been a special-occasion food in Mexican-American homes for decades -- so if you have an occasion to celebrate, the relleno at Bonnell's is about as special as it gets.
Details: 4259 Bryant Irvin Road, 817-738-5489; Bonnelstexas.com. Open for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday and Monday.
Relleno on the run
Place: San Diego Tacos Shop, Richland Hills
The dish: Chile relleno burrito, $3.85.
Our take: When you need a chile relleno fix, fast, this is the place to go. The food is billed as "Cal-Mex," and it's served faster than a California stop. Each of the four Metroplex locations, including two in Irving and one in Dallas, has a drive-through window. One thing that's not California-style about the food is that it's really cheap - $3.85 for a meal-size burrito.
The Richland Hills location is a brick building painted bright yellow -- the architecture is circa-1970s Taco Bell. Inside, those who wish to dine-in can choose from a handful of tables. A giant menu board includes photographs of most menu items.
Behind the counter, a staff of two or three people works frantically and happily explains orders in broken English.
The burrito is wrapped with an enormous flour tortilla. I'm delighted to open it up and find two New Mexico chiles -- which I prefer to the milder, darker poblano pepper that's more common in North Texas. The chiles have been dipped in a thin egg batter and deep-fried. They are laid on a bed of Mexican rice, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream.
I only wish the cook had left the stem on my rellenos, because I like to suck the seeds out of them, somewhat the same way crawfish eaters suck the juice out of the head.
Details: 7116 Boulevard 26, 817-284-1399; Letseat.at/sandiegotacosshop. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Place: Chuy's Mexican Food, west Fort Worth and south Arlington
The dish: Chile rellenos. Authentic New Mexico green chiles with choice of fillings and sauces, with beans and rice, $9.49 with shrimp and cheese.
Our take: Good place to grab a relleno -- one with an incredibly crunchy exterior -- for lunch on a workday.
A bad batter can really mess up a relleno. Chuy's, an Austin original that has become a formidable chain with locations throughout Texas and the Southeast, doesn't use a traditional, egg-based batter. Instead, a batter that includes buttermilk and crushed potato chips is used -- at least that's what our server said -- and the result is not the pillowy-soft outer covering found at most restaurants. Instead, diners get a chile relleno with a thin but incredibly crispy crust -- with the mouth feel, but not the taste, of chips.
It's not traditional, but it works.
And after just one cut into the belly of the relleno brought to my table, it was quickly obvious that Chuy's also takes its peppers seriously.
The staff travels to Hatch, N.M., each year to ensure high-quality peppers are used. My preference is the New Mexico chile -- especially a Hatch chile -- and on my visit to Chuy's I was pleasantly surprised to bite into a pepper that registered nice and high on the Scoville Heat Scale. (One of the painful pleasures of eating green chiles is, you don't know how hot they are going to be until you bite into one.)
Chuy's offers rellenos with cheese or ground sirloin with ranchero sauce for $8.99, fresh oven-roasted chicken and cheese with tomatillo sauce for $9.29, or shrimp and cheese with deluxe tomatillo sauce for $9.49. I visited the Fort Worth location with three workplace colleagues, and our food was terrific, if not made to order.
I ordered the shrimp and cheese and asked the server to sub Hatch Chile Sauce -- the hottest topping possible -- but alas when my order arrived a full 30 minutes later, the kitchen had forgotten to put the shrimp in.That misstep and others prompted a third guest at my table to speak with the manager. (He apologized and attempted to comp the entire meal, which we couldn't accept because we were on company business and ethically obligated to pay.)
Despite this, I wouldn't hesitate to go back to Chuy's. The salsa, which is made fresh hourly, is a pico de gallo that is really hot and spicy, yet served chilled.
Details: 2401 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth, 817-332-2489 and 4001 Bagpiper Way, Arlington. 817-557-2489; chuys.com. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Strap on the feedbag
Place: Jalapeños Mexican Cuisine, Keller
The dish: Oaxaca chile relleno combo. This is a poblano pepper, egg-battered and stuffed with cheese and your choice of beef or chicken. It's covered with ranchero sauce and melted Jack cheese, $11.99. You can substitute fajita steak or chicken for $1.
Our take: This place has a reputation for family-size portions. Colorful paint on the window outside Jalapeños advertises "Chile Rellenos," and that's enough to make me want to step inside and give them a try. My wife and I decide on a recent evening it's a good place for a family of four to visit and, as we find out, the menu can be a belly-buster.
The portions here are actually so big they are borderline unappetizing. When my order arrives, it's a 16-inch plate covered border-to-border with what probably is a 24-cubic-inch poblano pepper, Mexican rice, refried beans and a chicken enchilada. "They could have served the plate with half that much food, and skipped the enchilada, and charged the same amount," my wife says.
That said, the restaurant does do chile rellenos well. This place makes rellenos the way my wife likes them -- hidden beneath an inch-thick, egg-based batter.
Jalapeño's has a noteworthy salsa bar that includes pico de gallo with cactus, salsa with avocado and chopped onions and cilantro. The dining area features yellow walls, which are adorned with portraits of Pancho Villa and a Chivas soccer jersey. Colorful pennants hang from the ceilings.
Details: 901 Keller Parkway, 817-753-676; jalapenoskellerparkway.com. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Say cheese (and brisket)
Place: La Playa Maya, north Fort Worth Stockyards (also with locations in west and south Fort Worth)
The dish: Chile relleno Texano. Poblano pepper roasted and filled with Oaxaca and Monterey Jack cheese and slow-roasted brisket, then battered and fried, topped with queso sauce and served with rice and guacamole, $11.85.
Our take: If you're going to put a Tex-Mex spin on a chile relleno, one way to trick it up is to jam about 4 ounces of tender, shredded brisket inside one. La Playa Maya uses this method, and the result is a unique dish.
The poblano pepper is stuffed with brisket and white cheese, then coated with a thin, unremarkable egg batter before frying. Then, it is placed on a plate and drenched with orange cheese sauce and served with sides of rice and guacamole. I'm not a huge fan of the presentation -- bright orange pool on the plate -- but the taste is terrific, especially on a cold day. For those who have ever had a Mexican dish known as machaca, it's not a dissimilar experience. The brisket was melt-in-your-mouth tender.
Also, La Playa Maya serves a delightfully spicy and garlicy salsa.
Details: 1540 N. Main St., 817-624-8411; laplayamaya.com.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Are you nuts?
Place: Mariano's Mexican Cuisine, Arlington
The dish: Poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef, cheese, sour cream, tomatillo sauce, raisins and Texas pecans, $13.99
Our take: Mariano's is credited with inventing the frozen margarita, but during my visit on a recent day off, I go with a drink known as a salty perro rojo, which is a salty dog made with silver tequila (instead of vodka) and grapefruit juice. At $11, it's one of the most expensive drinks I've ever ordered, but -- yowza! -- it was a great warm-up for my taste buds.
The chile relleno plate features a single poblano pepper that, at my server's suggestion, was filled with ground beef and cheese, then draped with tomatillo sauce and sour cream and crowned with raisins and Texas pecans.
The combination of sweet and savory reminded me of the chiles in nogada my mother-in-law makes every Christmas -- and, believe me, that's a compliment! Also, Mariano's has two salsas, a mild red one that I could do without, and a terrifically earthy, chipotle-style dip that features grilled jalapeños and tomatoes.
Details: 2614 Majesty Drive (southeast corner of Texas 360 and Six Flags Drive), 817-640-5118; laharanch.com.Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Mom 'n' pop place
Place: La Rancherita Restaurant, south Fort Worth
The dish: Chile pepper specialty plate, $8.25 or $10.25 for a double.
Our take: An out-of-the-way place that is a hit with lunch crowds. A poblano pepper is stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese and dipped in a thin egg batter. It's served with fresh, tiny corn tortillas. The relleno dish is actually expensive, compared to many other plates that can be had here for less than $5. It's a no-frills eatery, with no blaring music and few amenities.
On a recent afternoon, I briefly watched the crawl on a flat-screen television showing CNN, and admired an oil painting of a matador, and another painting of a Dallas Cowboys helmet. Christmas lights hang from the ceiling. The place rocks at lunch, with a combination of office workers and people from nearly La Gran Plaza and an adjacent industrial area. A drive-through is available.
Details: 328 W. Bolt St., across the street from La Gran Plaza, 817-924-7888; rancheritarestaurant.com. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796