A Brief, Possibly True History of the Chile Relleno

Plus, Five New Mexican Chile Rellenos to Try Today

by Candolin Cook
photos by Stephanie Cameron

As is the case with many beloved recipes, the origin of the chile relleno (stuffed chile) is steeped in legend. One popularly accepted version asserts that nuns in Puebla, Mexico, invented the relleno for soon-to-be emperor Agustín de Iturbide in August of 1821. Allegedly, then general Iturbide was on his way back to Mexico City after triumphantly signing the Treaty of Córdoba (which established Mexican independence from Spain), when he decided to stop in Puebla to celebrate the day of his patron saint, San Agustín. To mark the historic occasion, nuns at the local Santa Mónica convent whipped up the first batch of chiles en nogada—green poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo (ground meat, fruits, nuts, and spices), covered in a white creamy walnut sauce (nogada, named for nogal or walnut), and garnished with red pomegranate seeds. The tricolored dish was said to represent the newly sovereign country’s flag.

Historians, however, have pointed out that not only had Indigenous and mestizo peoples been making versions of chiles rellenos for, perhaps, hundreds of years before Mexican independence, but there is no documentation of chiles en nogada or the Puebla nun story until 1925. That the supposed “neoclassical” dish did not become common until the 1930s, they argue, suggests that not only was this particular relleno recipe not the first, but it may be less than a century old.

Regardless of its inception date, the patriotic relleno has gone on to become a staple of Mexican cuisine and at holiday dinner tables. To try chiles en nogada locally, check out a tasty traditional version at Delicias Café in Albuquerque or, for a more unique presentation, order the “Cholula” at Sazón in Santa Fe. In the latter, Chef Fernando Olea molds a roasted chile poblano into a tower filled with ground lamb, pork, and beef; nuts; dried fruits; and spices. The relleno structure is then placed in a cool pool of nogada, and bejeweled with pomegranate seeds and a balsamic-jalapeño reduction.

Of course, the chile relleno most New Mexicans know and love differs significantly from Puebla’s and other regional variations—which often use anaheim, pasilla, or poblano chiles and a tomato-based sauce—but its origins are similarly murky. In the classic New Mexican version, a roasted and peeled New Mexican green chile is stuffed with cheese (e.g., cheddar, asadero, Monterey Jack), then coated in flour, dipped into a frothy egg batter, and fried in oil until the outside is golden and the inside is molten. The crunchy pepper is finished with a hearty douse of spicy New Mexico red or green chile sauce, and sometimes broiled with a bubbly top layer of meat and cheese. In the absence of proper documentation, it is hard to pin down exactly when New Mexico restaurants began offering cheese-stuffed rellenos. But we know at least one restaurant in the United States, Luna’s in San Francisco, began serving similar “chili reinas” in the 1890s (though these couldn’t have been as good as New Mexico’s, since they used green bell peppers).

Over the years, New Mexican restaurants have put their own delicious spins on the regional dish. In the 1990s, Geronimo boldly tried a filling incorporating smoked gouda and grilled artichoke hearts. Today, the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s La Fonda del Bosque offers a mouthwatering rendition with caramelized shiitake mushrooms and onions, roasted garlic, and goat and asadero cheese. But, while the flexible relleno will continue to evolve, the comfort of a classic New Mexican green chile and cheese relleno is sure to remain timeless.

Where to find some fiery New Mexico chile rellenos:

Cocina Azul (ABQ)
1134 Mountain NW, 5916 Holly NE, and 4243 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque

In 2020, Frito-Lay selected Cocina Azul’s chile relleno as one of five iconic dishes from restaurants across the country to become a special
limited-edition Lay’s potato chip flavor. Members of Cocina Azul’s staff were flown to a Lay’s test kitchen in Dallas to help develop the chip recipe, which hit stores that summer. Before Cocina Azul’s relleno garnered national recognition, it had long been beloved by Burqueños for its fluffy batter and flavorful topping options, including owner Frank Barela Sr.’s red and green chile sauces and a choice of succulent brisket, hearty carne adovada, or creamy chicken.

Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen (Santa Fe)
555 W Cordova, Santa Fe

While crowdsourcing opinions on the best chile relleno for this article, Maria’s came up again and again. It’s no wonder—the Santa Fe institution has been frying up rellenos for over seventy years now. These rellenos stand out for their nearly liquified jack-cheese filling and a generous topping of bubbly cheddar that covers everything on the plate, including the rice and beans. Pair them with one of Maria’s two hundred variations of lemon-juice margaritas.

Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe (El Prado / Taos)
1114 Don Juan Valdez Ln, El Prado

For twenty-five years, Orlando’s has been serving New Mexican cuisine in one of the most charming and colorful restaurants in or around Taos. Their classic relleno—thickly battered, fried, and stuffed with jack cheese—is a locals’ favorite that comes with a generous side portion of rice, pinto beans, posole, and a tortilla. Diners can choose to have their entrées smothered in the ubiquitous red and/or green chile, but I recommend Orlando’s third option, chile caribe. This northern New Mexico variation uses crushed (not ground) dried red chile pods, and is their hottest and smokiest sauce.

La Choza (Santa Fe)
905 Alarid, Santa Fe

Santa Fe’s La Choza and its sister restaurant, The Shed, have long been my go-to recommendations for out-of-towners looking to sample quintessential New Mexican cuisine. La Choza has all the hallmarks of a traditional, well-executed relleno: the chile is hot, the batter is fluffy, and the Monterey Jack filling is lava. Knowing that their chile is on the spicier side, they also offer a little respite with a drizzle of cool sour cream. Speaking of heat, it’s worth mentioning that the ambience in this colorful adobe abode gives diners a feeling as warm as the complimentary sopapillas.

Don Choche Tacos Y Cerveza (ABQ)
7319 Fourth Street NW and 111 Marble NW, Albuquerque

Perhaps the only thing better than a stuffed green chile is a stuffed green chile stuffed inside of something else. Enter Don Choche’s chile relleno taco. In this incarnation, the relleno’s golden egg batter stays crispy, since, instead of being smothered in chile, it is topped with taco fixins: shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cotija cheese, and salsa. I was tipped off to this tasty . . . taceno? rellenaco? by Campo cook Ryan Barnes, who dubbed it his favorite chile relleno in Albuquerque.

Honorable mentions also go out to El Modelo’s chile relleno burrito and El Paisa’s chile relleno gordita (both in Albuquerque), and to The Pantry’s chile relleno omelette (in Santa Fe) for recognizing that a cheesy relleno can improve any dish.

Candolin Cook

Candolin Cook is a historian, writer, editor, and former co-editor ofedible New Mexico.She recently received her doctorate in history from the University of New Mexico and is working on her first book.