Cervantes | Albuquerque | 5801 Gibson Blvd SE
A chile relleno is a hard thing to master. You have to get the ratio of cheese to chile to breading just right, or you end up with a mess. Too much breading and it’s heavy. Too much cheese and you lose the chile. Too much sauce on top and you get a soggy mess.
For me growing up, chile rellenos were always crispy, served right out of the grease with just a hint of red or green on top. My dad would stand over the stove, one hand holding a slotted spoon poised over the pot of popping grease, the other hand held out for balance, it seemed, all fingers thickly coated in batter and flour. As soon as a relleno turned a medium brown, it was scooped up and served. Letting it sit on a stack of paper towels for a moment was allowed, but only long enough to let a little oil drip off. Not long enough for it to cool down or soften in its own juices.
Most times I go to a new (new to me) Mexican or New Mexican restaurant, I get a combo plate of some kind. I usually look for the combo plate that includes a taco, enchilada, and relleno. It is the crispy, rightly-ratioed version of the relleno of my childhood that I’m looking for.
Most restaurants get it wrong*. The typical problem is an overabundance of batter, more pancake-like than anything else, and/or an overabundance of sauce on top — a “smothered” relleno is a soggy relleno. Or they use a Poblano pepper. And that’s just weird.
But Cervantes…. Cervantes gets it right. I ate at Cervantes in early July 2014, and in true Me style, ordered a combo plate with relleno.
NOTE: Thank you, Cervantes, for putting the taco on its own little plate. Many restaurants put the taco alongside everything else (between the enchilada and beans, for example), which means the bottom of the taco sits in the bean juice and red/green sauce until you pick it up, at which time it promptly falls apart because the integrity of the shell has been compromised.
Above: Combo Plate #2: Taco (on its own plate!), Enchilada, Relleno, Carne Adovada + RBI (rice, beans, iceberg)
Anyway, the first thing I did was take a bite of the relleno. It was a little too smothered for my personal preference, but the relleno underneath was actually crispy! It had some texture to it. The chile had great flavor, there was just the right amount of cheese, and the batter wasn’t overpowering. AHHHH! (Insert mental image of the heavens opening up and angels singing here.)
I was thrilled to have found what I consider to be a properly cooked (and delicious) chile relleno at Cervantes.
SURPRISE ON THE PLATE:
The combo plates come with the typical sides of beans and rice, but also with a little dollop of carne adovada. The carne adovada (shredded pork in red) was absolutely the best thing on the plate, and that’s saying something. I was disappointed that there was only a little scoop – maybe 1/3 cup. Next time I will order more adovada.
WHAT ELSE WE ORDERED:
Carnitas plate: Cubed pork in a roasty green chile sauce. Served with RIB and hot, homemade flour tortillas. It was really good! Peppery, porky, green chile-y, but not spicy. (If you want spicy, you have to get something with red.) The flour tortillas were fantastic!
Above: Carnitas plate: Cubed pork in green chile sauce, RBI, homemade tortillas
The meals also come with sopapillas, which makes me beyond happy. The sopapillas are a little bit dense, but still delicious, and they are served with local honey.
KEEP IN MIND:
The red chile is hotter than the green, and the day I went it was pretty spicy. Not “OMG Bring Me Milk Now” kind of hot, but it was spicy enough for me to take notice! Just the perfect amount of heat. I ordered my meal Christmas style, and the green chile was super flavorful, but not at all spicy.
Cervantes has been around a long time – according to the sign outside, since 1973. The building exterior and the neighborhood are not impressive. Which is pretty typical of really awesome NM restaurants. The slightly shady neighborhood and run-down looking building and abandoned Pizza Hut building next door let you know you’re in for a treat.
The google internetz machine calls this the “International District.” Having lived and worked in Albuquerque for a long time, I would call this the “Base District” (or probably just “Over by base”) because it’s right outside Kirtland Air Force Base. Specifically, outside the Gibson/Louisiana gate, at the corner of Gibson and San Pedro. This makes it an easy lunch for anyone working at Kirtland, but also puts it within easy reach of UNM, Nob Hill, and even the airport.
The interior is kind of dark and cozy and typical of a legit New Mexican restaurant. Not trying too hard, but trying enough. The walls are hung with lovely local art – paintings of adobe in the snow, and the like. I visited Cervantes in early July, and the interior was decked out in July 4th décor. And not just the obligatory flag here and there – they go all out. And from what I’ve heard, they do this for all major holidays. I’d like to go back around Christmas.
Cervantes is really really good. It is legit, authentic, traditional New Mexican food, with excellent red chile and a chile relleno — (almost) just like you’d get at my dad’s house.
*Yes, after decades of searching for a relleno cooked the “right” way, and 95% of the time finding rellenos cooked the “wrong” way, it has occurred to me that maybe my family and I make and prefer our rellenos the “wrong” way. But I’m sticking with this, regardless.
Visit the Cervantes website here > CERVANTES