Photo by Jack GouldOur standard measure of a Mexican restaurant's worth is the chile relleno. This roasted pepper stuffed with cheese (or meat and vegetables in some Central American traditions), dipped in batter and fried till golden brown may not seem like all that much. But its preparation says a lot about a kitchen—beginning with whether the relleno was actually prepared on the premises or shipped in frozen from somewhere else. Like Akron. With the right ingredients, anybody can make a taco or enchilada. But rellenos require the right ingredients and skillful preparation. That's why the majority of restaurants use the premade kind. Somewhere out there is a relleno factory that turns them out by the trayful and ships them all across Southern California. How else can you explain why, from Oxnard to San Clemente, so many rellenos areas identical as the Olsen twins—and just as unctuous? The scratch-built, homemade relleno is getting harder and harder to find. And it has its own pitfalls. The cheese inside the pepper may not be melted—a frequent problem if they're made in bulk for microwaving later. The batter jacket that wraps the pepper may be gummy (from undercooking) or, worse, burned crisp. The pepper itself can be stringy and more puncture-resistant than Kevlar. Then there's the stock ranchera sauce, gooey with . . . could it be? . . . cornstarch. If you can't trust a chef to make a good relleno, how can you trust him to make anything else? For years, our favorite rellenos have required a trip to West LA, to a long-standing Pico Boulevard location called the Talpa. There, dirt-cheap, mouthwatering rellenos are carefully pan-fried so that the cheese, the chile and its batter jacket all arrive at perfection together. The simple ranchera sauce—a mélange of hot and green peppers, tomatoes, and spices—soaks into the jacket, adding heat and flavor all around. These rellenos are truly fit for angels. But now here's a challenger. Anita's New Mexico Style Mexican Food offers rellenos that are equally angelic while carrying a touch of the devil in their spicing. Anita's is the perfect combination of tiny dining room, tiny patio and takeout counter, all neat as a pin. You'll know something is up as soon as you dunk a chip into the salsa. No watered-down product this, the dip has more heat and character than the two major presidential candidates combined. The menu, filled with tacos, enchiladas, burritos and taquitos, isn't terribly extensive. You will find specialties like hominy soup (posole) and sopaipillas stuffed for both dinner and dessert. The tamales, in the New Mexican style, are chunky affairs, and all the sauces—ranchera, enchilada—have that dark, somewhat sinister personality connected with Santa Fe-style cooking. These goods have the kind of heat that sticks with you well into the next morning. As you fork into the stemless end of the chile relleno, the queso comes swirling out, mixing with the hot and dusky ranchera in a meld of tastes and textures more satisfying than sin. The pepper gives way easily to your fork and carries a touch of warmth itself. The batter jacket is almost crisp. Another plus: Anita's serves two rellenos with rice and beans for less than 8 bucks. But as good as they are, rellenos aren't the best reason to visit Anita's. Her standout dish is carne adovada, chunks of pork slightly pink around their edges, not from undercooking but from a 24-hour soak in red chile marinade. These roasted, fatless bits are seriously spicy, the kind of food that can change your mood—and your circulation—in a single bite. If you can't choose between the relleno and the adovada, Anita offers a dinner combination with both and an enchilada covered in sauce more complex than your last relationship. It's a meal that will bring a glow to even the most cast-iron of constitutions.
Anita's New Mexico Style Mexican Food, located at 600 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, is open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (714) 525-0977. Dinner for two, $7-$20, food only. Beer & wine. AmEx, Discover, MC and Visa accepted.