Some of us are partial to chile rellenos. Though they are a common Mexican restaurant item, they differ a lot from place to place. It is a great test to do on a restaurant; deciphering the freshness of the ingredients and critiquing each chef’s approach to this classic Mexican meal.
La Fogata is a tiny restaurant in Tres Pinos that is tucked quietly beside Jeannine’s Hair Shoppe and Wayne’s Tres Pinos Market.
It is cozy and has a neighborhood feel. La Fogata has a classic menu, featuring items such as posole and menudo, with handmade corn tortillas on weekends or for weekday lunch, burritos or a special bunch of little mini beef tacos topped with fresh herbs.
One day, I happened to meet the owner, María Ines Catalán, who came to the United States 30 years ago with her family. Catálan has gradually forged her way in the mostly male farming world and grows organic produce in Hollister. She took over the restaurant in Tres Pinos a little more than three years ago to serve another need, preparing salsas and other products for farmers' markets around the Bay Area. She and her family grow vegetables such as green onions, cauliflower, kale and chard at the Catalán Family Farm on Frazier Lake Road.
Made properly, the chile relleno takes quite a while to prepare. There are many variations on this stuffed chiles dish. Depending on the region of Mexico, they could be made with the small, spicier jalapeño or made sweet, with cream cheese and nuts.
The classic chile relleno starts with a fresh poblano or pasilla chile. They are beautiful chiles, big and dark green with a black cast to the skin. They are consistently mild but with just a hint of spice. One by one, the chile’s surface is roasted without over-cooking the meat. Then, it is put aside in a plastic bag to loosen the skin and cook gently, bringing out the flavors.
For the dip, the egg yolk is separated and the whites are put in a blender for a long time, almost 10 minutes, until they are whipped up into peaks. Then the yolks are gently mixed back in.
While the dip is being prepared, the chiles are peeled and through a slit on the side, the seeds are removed. A narrow block of cheese is slid into the chile and finally, the stuffed poblanos are dipped into the egg batter and then laid gently into a pan of hot oil.
Not all restaurants use fresh chiles, but La Fogata does.
As a farmer, Catalán uses as many fresh ingredients as possible. The leaves on the herbs she uses are still perky and bright green and the simple red sauce that goes on top of the finished relleno is freshly made.
The farming in San Benito County is hugely productive and each year we have more variety available to us. Small growers like María Ines Catalán have brought from Mexico authentic ingredients and vegetables that are new adventures for our taste buds. Living in San Benito County, we are fortunate to have meals like these coming from the fields around us, then served up right at Catalán’s little kitchen in Tres Pinos.
La Fogata is located at 6851 Airline Hwy in Tres Pinos.
Monday- Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday 7a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sunday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Reporter's note: While doing this story, María Ines Catalán and her family's crop was wiped out, "todo muerto," as she put it, by the recent floods. A story about María Ines and the impact on the Catalán Family Farm will be published soon on BenitoLink.