109 Danbury Road, Ridgefield, (203) 431-3398, southwestcafe.com
When I see chiles rellenos on a menu, I want to order them. But I know I'm taking a big chance. No restaurant dish has disappointed me more, so many times, than chiles rellenos. These cheesy stuffed chile peppers are time-consuming to make, and there are so many ways that a short-cutting cook can make them go wrong. "I should never order the chiles rellenos," I tell myself again and again.
But I did it again. And now, I'm amending that statement to "If you go to Southwest Café, order the chiles rellenos."
Southwest Café, tucked away in Ridgefield in the Copps Hill Common shopping center, has been serving up New Mexican cuisine for over 25 years, and it still feels fresh. On a recent visit, everything they're doing right was clear from the moment we entered this cute, cheery café, and were greeted by a friendly waitress asking us whether we preferred to sit inside or outside. Southwest Café seems like a labor of love, and is a lesson in the wisdom of sticking with your theme. Owner Barbara Nevins focuses on the green-chile pepper-laden cooking of her former home of Taos, New Mexico.
It was a quiet evening. Two tables away, a man and woman were on their first Match.com date (we overheard far too much about the man and his self-described "mane of shocking white hair.") At the six-seat bar, three solitary diners sat comfortably, each in their own worlds. A husband and wife dined on the patio. There was a relaxed, neighborhood-favorite feel, yet newcomers were greeted as warmly as regulars. Our very friendly server Trish has been at Southwest Café for 15 years. When she heard me say I'd forgotten my reading glasses, she brought a pair to the table. Nice touch.
The chiles rellenos ($18) were deep-brown, deep-fried packets of long, thin mild green chiles filled with Monterey Jack cheese. The crust was slightly sweet. They use a thick, pancake-like batter. To highlight the texture of the crust, the chiles rellenos are served resting on the sauce. When we cut into the rellenos, the melted cheese oozed onto the sauce and mixed with the shredded lettuce and tomato and it was a wonderful melding of layers of flavor and textures.
We couldn't decide between green or red sauce, so they gave us both. Each sauce was excellent. The red chile sauce tasted smoky and deep, and it was satisfyingly spicy, a heat that didn't overwhelm the flavor of the chiles. Nevins orders dried, ground red chiles from Chimayo, N.M., adds a touch of cayenne, creates a roux and builds this sauce, which is also served on enchiladas and burritos.
The green chili sauce is made from roasted poblanos and onions. It's also the basis for their green chile stew. Now, when I looked at the menu and saw that you could order the green chili stew with a choice of chicken, beef, pork or vegetables, it gave me pause. I didn't like the idea of the meats and sauce being cooked separately. I thought it would leave both the chile and the meat less flavorful. My concerns were cast aside by the big bowl of stew ($18) streaked with melted cheese. Rich and thick, with layers of flavor of poblano peppers and melded vegetables. And the shredded chicken itself was terrific. Sure, it had been cooked separately. Whatever technique they'd used — roasting? — gave it lots of flavor.
You can choose pinto or black beans with the rellenos. I chose pinto, and they also were deeply flavored, slightly smoky, with the just-right soft consistency of homemade beans. (I did blanch, however, when reading Southwest Café's website; margarine is used in the beans instead of lard. I've spent my life avoiding margarine. I'd rather have lard.)
The only thing that wasn't great was the drinks. The classic margarita was very sweet. It's made with sour mix rather than fresh lime juice. The frozen mango margarita had an off-flavor, which my friend thought would be improved with a splash more tequila, but even that didn't help. The skinny margarita is made with fresh lime, but it is sweetened with agave syrup, which can be very sweet. Next time I'll order a craft beer. With our drinks we had the fundito appetizer ($10). The bowl of melted cheese was smoky with bits of chorizo and slightly spicy from the poblano peppers. It was served with warm, grilled flour tortillas.
In late August, when New Mexican Hatch chiles are harvested, Nevins travels back to Taos, NM. She's been known to ship back up to 900 pounds of organic chiles. She roasts, peels and freezes these green chiles and uses them in daily specials. The supply usually lasts until January.
It's easy to see why Southwest Café is such an endearing favorite. It's all about the chiles.