WE MAY NEVER KNOW WHO invented chiles rellenos, that oozy, piquant, and beloved staple of Mexican and New Mexican cuisines. But in recent years, one thing’s for sure: Chefs across the state are both innovating and elevating this classic dish of roasted, stuffed, battered, and then fried chiles to impressive new heights.
An oft-told origin tale of chiles rellenos, which means “stuffed chiles,” credits the nuns of the Santa Monica convent in Puebla, Mexico, with the dish’s invention. The sisters cooked up an honorary meal of chiles en nogada for the leader of the Mexican Army, Agustín de Iturbide, when he visited Puebla in 1821 after signing the treaty awarding Mexico independence from Spain.
As the story goes, the nuns stuffed green poblanos with a mixture of ground meat, nuts, fruits, and spices, and then draped the dish in a white walnut sauce topped with red pomegranate seeds. The colors of the dish reflected the green, white, and red of the infant country’s new flag in a respectful tribute to Iturbide, who would soon become emperor.
While chiles en nogada remains a treasured dish in Mexico, historians have also served up ample evidence that Indigenous and mestizo people already were stuffing chiles with a variety of fillings centuries before the Puebla nuns “invented” chiles rellenos.
Wherever they originated, chiles rellenos evolved after traveling the foodways from Mexico to New Mexico with early Spanish settlers. Like so many beloved foods brought from one part of the world to another, the dish was adapted to reflect its new locality.
The poblano, for instance, is a mainstay ingredient in Mexico’s chiles rellenos, stuffed with queso Oaxaca, queso Chihuahua, or another regional cheese, and served with tomato sauce. The New Mexico–grown Hatch chile reigns supreme in the Land of Enchantment’s rellenos, which are traditionally stuffed with Monterey Jack or asadero cheese and served with red or green chile sauce.
Cristina Martinez, the acclaimed executive chef of El Monte Sagrado’s De La Tierra Restaurant in Taos, has enjoyed a long love affair with chiles rellenos. “The traditional relleno has always been one of my favorite things,” she says. “I have quite the history of making them with my mom in Albuquerque, and also being a connoisseur of trying different chiles rellenos everywhere.”
While she was living in Los Angeles, for example, she noticed most of the rellenos followed the Mexican tradition. “They were more often made with poblano and a tomato-based sauce, heavily breaded with lots of cheese,” she recalls.
Martinez has cooked up a clever twist on seasonal rellenos for De La Tierra. “I wanted to put something on the menu that was very New Mexican, but also very summerlike,” she says. “Something that had that real ‘wow’ factor.” So she started experimenting with various ways to smoke, cook, and shred pulled pork for the filling. “It was quite a process.”
In her version, cheese only helps to hold the pork together. “The crunch, the smell, everything that goes into it when you bite into it is definitely like summer in your mouth,” she says.
The rellenos served at La Fonda del Bosque, the restaurant at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center, are undoubtedly one of a kind. Chef-owner Stefani Mangrum created the recipe by chance in the early 1990s at her first Albuquerque restaurant, City Grill & Wine Bar. When a pregnant customer told her she couldn’t eat most dairy, Mangrum substituted a milder goat cheese. Around the same time, she received a grow-your-own-mushroom log as a Christmas present and started using it in her own kitchen before discovering she was severely allergic to the spores necessary for fungi growth. Looking for a way to use them up, she conceived of her famous rellenos, which are stuffed with caramelized shiitake mushrooms and onions, roasted garlic, and goat and asadero cheeses, then served atop a luscious corn coulis.
“They’re labor-intensive,” says Mangrum. “I feed all my staff whatever they want except for the rellenos. When one explodes or implodes, the staff are happy because they can eat that one.”
She understands that the unusual combination of ingredients isn’t what guests expect. “We’re not conjuring up food-emotional memories; I don’t think our grandmothers or mothers were making these,” she says. “Usually, there’s silence at the table when the rellenos arrive. That’s always a good sign.”
At Cocina Azul’s three locations in Albuquerque, diners can choose their own chiles rellenos adventure. The longtime restaurant serves the dish with a choice of three toppings: brisket, carne adovada, or creamy chicken. “The brisket is our most popular topping,” says Daniel Sosa, manager of Cocina Azul, which opened its first location at 1134 Mountain Road NW in 2009.
“The flavor of our brisket is a good combo with the chile and the Monterey Jack cheese,” he adds. Cocina Azul is renowned for its batter. “We add soda water to give a crispy texture when you fry the rellenos,” says Sosa. “And we’re really picky with the chile. It has to be whole, intact, with no black dots and no burn marks, as perfect and as fresh as it can be.”
Even before the fancy toppings are added, the resulting rellenos hit all the right notes, including the one that might matter the most to New Mexicans. “It’s like homemade,” says Sosa. “Like grandma used to make. It’s like coming home when you taste this.”
Good old-fashioned barbecue inspired chef Cristina Martinez to create these flavorful rellenos, which she pairs with a refreshing jicama slaw. Her go-to seasoning is Spiceology’s Cowboy Crust and Smoky Honey Habanero spice blends, but you can substitute your favorite spices. Any leftover pork is easy to freeze.
Caramelized shiitake mushrooms and red onions tucked inside roasted green chiles with melty cheese add up to pure comfort food with an elegant twist. Owner and chef Stefani Mangrum calls it Latin fusion, and it’s the focus of her menu at La Fonda del Bosque. She makes the corn coulis with fresh sweet corn, but you can also use frozen.
Searching for fresh potato chip flavors in 2020, Lay’s chose Cocina Azul’s chiles rellenos as one of five iconic restaurant dishes across the country to inspire a limited-edition chip. But locals have long known about this delicious dish. While Cocina Azul famously serves three topping choices—brisket, carne adovada, and creamy chicken—feel free to smother yours with red or green chile, or any other favorite toppings.