El Chingon 4326 Tennyson Street 303-248-3641
If you've been in Denver for any length of time -- say, longer than a layover at DIA -- you're aware that we take green chile seriously here. So seriously, in fact, that it's earned a spot on the list of topics to avoid at family gatherings, along with pot, politics and when you're going to produce that first grandchild. If you like a goopy, flour-thickened smother and whoever is running the show (mom, dad, uncle, whomever) falls on the side of straight-up tomatillos and chiles, you'd better keep your mouth shut or risk no seconds on dessert.
Green chile isn't the only food that sparks fightin' words in this city. Pizza, burgers and edibles have no shortage of supporters on both sides of the fence. Now El Chingon, a family-run Mexican restaurant that relocated to Berkeley from Arvada last year, is doing its best to add another to the list: chiles rellenos.
See also: A Closer Look at El Chingon
I've loved these stuffed, battered peppers for as long as I can remember. Indeed, one of my earliest food memories is associated with the dish. I was young, in first or second grade, and was sharing a meal with extended family at a Mexican restaurant. I couldn't resist the crackly, nubby bits that clung to the outside of my grandfather's rellenos, and as I snuck a bite off his plate, I pulled up some of the pepper, which happened to be an especially hot one. I couldn't have been more surprised than if the pepper had been stuffed with ice cream, and while the heat caught me off guard, it sparked a passion for spicy foods, a category of nourishment that until then I didn't know existed.
It wasn't until college that I learned that there's another kind of relleno, one cloaked in a soft batter rather than a crispy shell. El Chingon chef David Lopez went through a similar process of discovery, only in reverse. "A lot of people here like the crispy version, but I didn't know it existed until I got older," says Lopez, who grew up in north Denver and didn't discover the Tex-Mex type of relleno until he was a teen. He'd grown up eating the soft rellenos made by his grandmother, a native of Mexico City.
It's his grandmother's version, made with whipped egg whites with yolks blended in and dusted with flour, that's featured on El Chingon's dinner menu. And it's his grandmother, 76-year-old Gloria Nunez, who often makes them there, since Nunez and Lopez share the title of executive chef. "She got overwhelmed at first, thinking she had to make everything, like she did at home," says Lopez, who graduated in 2004 from what was then known as the Culinary School of the Rockies (now Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts) and worked his way up to sous-chef at bang! before joining the family business when El Chingon first opened in 2011. "It's okay," he remembers reassuring his grandmother. "We have a staff to help us."
I'm sure El Chingon's soft relleno is fine if you grew up with that style. But to me it was just too soggy, even before the traditional pitcher of thinned tomato sauce (listed on the menu as "en caldillo de jitomate") was poured tableside over the peppers, a gesture indicative of the high-end approach that El Chingon has taken since its move. My order of rellenos -- even the parts not splashed by sauce -- were thick and wet, the coating's texture identical to that of the slippery green flesh beneath. Food should please all the senses -- that's why artistic plating and textural contrast are hallmarks of the professional kitchen -- but this version fell short in both texture and taste, given the blandness of the ground-beef-and-tomato filling. (The Oaxacan-cheese-stuffed relleno was better, though just as damp.)
Other family recipes proved more tempting. The bisteces empanizados was tastier than any chicken-fried steak I ate growing up, with a highly seasoned coating of panko and breadcrumbs, though the meat could've used another pound or two to help with tenderness. Chicken enchiladas -- a dish that Lopez always requested from his grandmother on his birthday -- came smothered not in the red sauce and melted cheddar associated with Tex-Mex versions, but in a vibrant chile verde, thickened with puréed tomatillos, serranos and jalapeños, not flour. (If this is your kind of green, remember to keep it to yourself when your family gathers for the Fourth of July or risk a debate that could be hotter than the chile itself.) The fiery green sauce, specked with bits of pork, also smothered the Chingon burrito, but it wasn't enough to elevate what was just a basic burrito, plumped with far more refried beans than chicken. Keep reading for the rest of our review of El Chingon.
When El Chingon outgrew its original home after just one year, Lorenzo Nunez Jr., the owner and Lopez's uncle, decided to take it in a new direction. In Arvada, the restaurant was known for more casual fare, such as tostadas, tacos and burritos. Now those dishes are largely relegated to the lunch menu, and on my visits, tacos weren't offered at all at dinner -- though they're expected on the summer menu that will launch soon (along with the new back patio) and will have fancy fillings like lobster and duck confit. A tostada does appear at night, but mine came with a fried flour tortilla that was so oil-soaked, I picked off the marinated carne asada I'd paid extra for (standard tostadas come with refried beans) and ate the meat plain. Corn tortillas, not made in-house as I would have expected given the restaurant's high-end positioning, are used for tostadas at lunch and can be substituted upon request at dinner.
The new digs also reflect El Chingon's new direction. The Tennyson Street location -- a 110-year-old house that took a while to renovate and put the restaurant in limbo for a year -- is spiffed up with dark-wood tables, white walls hung with a local photographer's prints of north Denver, and an L-shaped bar hugged by stools topped with deep red cushions. With a chandelier fashioned from bike rims and chains and a large black, red and white canvas of a Chihuahua, the space feels crisp and classy, a far cry from its former home -- not to mention most joints dishing up this kind of cuisine.
Then again, El Chingon isn't trying to be most joints. "Our goal is to keep it a bistro, a little more high-end," says Lopez. "We don't want to be a taqueria." So in addition to those family recipes and a few Mexican standards, the menu now includes salads such as kale-quinoa and romaine with mango de gallo, addictive pork-belly chicharrones and just the right amount of orange-lime vinaigrette. There's also a ceviche flight served in martini glasses, but mine came out not stylish, but drab: three monotone mounds in need of cilantro, tomato and red onion. Carnitas was plated whole, and while I'm a fan of shredded pork, the large piece made it easier to appreciate a knockout cinnamon-and-chile rub. To really hold its own as an upscale entree, however, the dish should come with more than a dollop of green chile and two rings of pickled onions. And don't expect free chips and salsa to pair with your drink. Chips aren't even listed on the dinner menu, though they can be had upon request. At lunch, they're available with salsa or guacamole, but my experience with the latter left me wanting more -- not more guac, but more salt, lime, garlic and cilantro to perk up the mild-mannered mash.
Desserts have also been gussied up, with equally mixed results. Churros arrived with raspberry coulis and ice cream, a welcome addition, because if the fried dough clings to too much oil, as it sometimes does, there's always that scoop of Little Man. Crustless chocolate cheesecake was oddly chunky, not to mention so mildly flavored I wouldn't have known it was chocolate except for the color. No one would fight for an extra spoonful of this dessert -- even if El Chingon might still inspire debate over other hot topics, including the merits of crispy vs. soft.
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Select menu items from El Chingon:
Chiles rellenos $13 Ceviche flight $14 Orange-lime honey salad $9 Carnitas $15 Bisteces empanizados $14 Enchiladas verdes $12 Tostada $8 Burrito $10 Churros $7 Chocolate cheesecake $7
El Chingon is open 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday, and 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at elchingondenver.com.