Considering that Mexico is one of the spiritual homelands for high-quality chili peppers, it’s unfortunate to see that in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. chiles rellenos, the dish where the pepper is the star, is often underappreciated and poorly executed. Bricia Lopez wants to change that. She and her family own Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, which has been called the best Oaxacan restaurant in the country. Host Francis Lam says they make the greatest chiles rellenos he’s ever had. He talked with Lopez about her efforts to romanticize the dish and got her recipe for Chiles Rellenos de Picadillo. You can find more of her Oaxacan-inspired recipes at her recipe site and blog Mole and More.
Francis Lam: You say you are on a mission to change people’s minds about chiles rellanos. Why do you think they have a bad rap?
Bricia Lopez: I was 19 years old when I moved to Los Angeles. When I first moved here I went to a restaurant with my dad and ordered chile relleno because in Oaxaca, where I’m from, they’re one of the best things that our cuisine has to give to the world. When I received it, it was just not what I was used to – to say the least. It was a soggy, greasy, chili-ish thing. And I was like, “What is this?”
Every time someone comes out to eat at our restaurant Guelaguetza, I always recommend chiles rellenos. I always get pushback from people that say, “It’s not my fav.” I say, “No, really. Just taste it.” It’s one of these dishes that I always push. Ten times out of ten everyone has always liked it. They say, “This is the best chiles rellenos ever; I didn’t think chiles rellenos could be like this!” It’s because they are Oaxacan chiles rellenos, which makes them that much better. They are so different. I want to change that perception that people have. I want them to close their eyes and imagine what I grew up eating, not what I experience here the first time I ate one here.
FL: What makes a good chile relleno?
BL: I feel like with every dish there is so much layering that happens. One of my favorite things to have inside a chile relleno is picadillo de pollo. It’s shredded chicken with tomatoes, onions, almonds, raisins, a little bit of chocolate shaving or brown sugar and salt. It’s this beautiful sweet chicken picadillo stuffed into a chile. We use a chile de agua that comes from Oaxaca. It’s spicy. The batter is so fluffy and beautiful; it’s not crunchy or overly oily. You get that rich fat, sweetness and spiciness all together singing in your mouth. I like to have it with a torte with avocado or in a sandwich.
FL: Tell me about the chili itself. You use a particular chili, but are there other chilies that we can use? And how to you prep the chili?
BL: The chili has to be roasted, and you have to peel the skin off so you’re left with the meaty portion of the chili. When you roast a chili it completely transforms the flavor profile. An Anaheim chili is another good option. I hope that chile de agua will be readily available all over the U.S. at some point because they are so delicious.
FL: You want a chili that is big enough to stuff, but not something super-hot, right?
BL: I personally like the spice you get in between the egg and the sweet chicken. With chilies you never know which one you’re going to get, which ones are going to be too spicy and which ones are going to be just right. In the market you can’t really tell. You want something that gives you the sweetness and the spice together. But if you get a chili that’s not too spicy, I don’t think that will take away from anything.
You can make Bricia Lopez's Chiles Rellenos de Picadillo at your home. Photo provided by Bricia Lopez
FL: The pepper is roasted, split open, and stuffed with whatever you’re stuffing it with. Tell me about the batter. Because I’ve had chile rellenos that are not battered, where it’s just the chili with a stuffing, and I feel a little let down when that happens. What is in your batter?
BL: You know, it’s just eggs. Oaxaca really loves eggs. In Oaxaca there is one dish that calls for 35 eggs. I kid you not! We love our eggs. So, it’s a batter where you take all of the egg whites and you whip them until they are fluffy, then you add the egg yolks and whip it again. And that’s it.
The chiles rellenos without the batter is a little bit more accessible for people, and when I say accessible I think the idea of doing the batter makes some people think that it’s not a weekday meal but more like a weekend project. If you have a good chili – and it’s roasted beautifully – and you want to stuff some chicken in there, just put it in the broiler and by definition it is still a chile relleno, that is a ‘stuffed chile,’ which is the definition in Spanish. If you want to save a few, put them in the fridge and save them for the weekend when you have a little bit more time to do the batter, and give that project a good try. I think either of them work, you just have to have a good chili.
FL: And it’s not like what we often think of as a batter. It doesn’t get crunchy or crispy.
BL: No. Because it’s just egg, it gets beautifully fluffy. Like an egg cloud.
FL: It’s like if you imagine frying meringue.
BL: Yes! That’s exactly what it is.
FL: It’s fluffy and soft. Then when you sauce it in the end, it’s usually with a simple tomato sauce, right?
BL: Super simple Oaxacan tomato sauce. So, it’s like biting into this egg cloud and a spicy chile and then finding this present of sweet chicken concoction that you’ve just come up with. It’s well-worth the time investment you’ve just made. Do you know what I mean?
FL: I, 100 percent, know what you mean.
BL: Am I romanticizing this too much?
FL: No. I want to go cook it right now.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.