Chili lovers brag about who makes the best bowl of red, so named because it's spiced with red chiles. But there's a bowl of green too. It's chile verde, a pork and green chile stew that has plenty of worshipers in the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
The full name is carne con chile verde, or carne en salsa verde, which means meat with green chile sauce. The meat is typically pork; the choice of chiles is up to the cook. The seeds that appear in the sauce are from fresh tomatillos, which supply distinctive green color and bright acidic flavor. Onion, garlic and cilantro are in the mix too. There may be additional seasonings such as cumin and oregano, but never the fantastical condiments that turn up at chili contests. No chocolate, cocoa powder, wine, cinnamon or brown sugar, in other words — and no beans. They're on the side, with the usual accompaniments of rice, chips, salsa and tortillas. Good chile verde is pure, fresh and simple, a comforting dish loaded with natural flavor.
Restaurants that serve it range from rustic to posh, and throughout many neighborhoods, including South Bay, Pico Rivera and East L.A. — where we found the five that made this list.
Every one is spectacularly good. Each is also different — more types of chiles in one, a strong note of cumin in another, one extremely spicy, others less so. Because when chile verde is good, it’s very good. When it’s bad — well, there aren’t any bad versions of chile verde on this list.
Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taquería
Don’t look for chile verde on the menu at Zapien’s Salsa Grill and Taquería in Pico Rivera. Instead, ask for Dionicio Morales’ Favorite, named for a guest. Morales apparently liked both chile verde and chile colorado, which is beef in red chile sauce, so the special is either one. There’s no need to choose, though. A plate called chiles divorciados has them both. Unlike occasional specials, Dionicio Morales' Favorite is available every day. Look for it on the menu under "traditional dishes," then specify red or green.
It’s the chile verde that excels, with its brilliant, fresh tomatillo flavor. The recipe isn’t secret: Chef Marco C. Zapien, who is co-owner of the restaurant with his father, Jess, explains each step in the cooking demos and classes he gives quarterly at the restaurant. The meat is pork butt, which simmers first in chicken broth. Then jalapeños, bell peppers, tomatillos, onion, garlic and cilantro are sautéed and puréed with stock from the meat. The final step is to cook the meat with the vegetables until it’s fork-tender.
“Everything we do in the restaurant is from scratch,” Zapien says. This includes the tortilla chips that come with salsa and a chipotle bean dip. and the handmade corn tortillas that accompany the chile verde, rice and beans. Weekday lunch specials also include a bowl of soup and a drink.
Why order chile verde in a restaurant that specializes in birria? Easy. Because it’s very good. And nicely presented too. At Chalio, the meat and rice are side by side on a large plate that holds a separate dish of beans and one of salad. This is Mexican style salad — lettuce, tomato and an orange slice, with a lime to squeeze over them instead of dressing.
If you're not sure about ordering the chile verde, your server will bring a small cup of the sauce to sample — and there should be no hesitation after that. Combined with tender chunks of pork, the thick sauce has just the right amount of acidity from tomatillos and a nice hit of chile heat.
First come chips to dip in spicy fresh tomato salsa. While the kitchen assembles the order, corn tortillas will be made by hand. They’re huge, and flavorful enough to eat on their own, without sauce or beans.
Chalio started out as a birria place on East 1st Street, then opened in this location 20 years ago. This is “the best birria in the world,” the menu says. A big claim, but the chile verde rates a top spot too. It's excellent.
760 S. Atlantic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 262-3456.
Teresitas has the spiciest chile verde around. On the menu, it’s marked “extremadamente picoso,” which means extremely hot. To make it so, jalapeños are boosted with serranos and habaneros. The other sauce ingredients are tomatillos, cilantro, onion, garlic and the leftover juices from the meat cooked for carnitas.
In a departure from most restaurants, Teresitas has beef chile verde as well as pork. The meat is flank steak, which is grilled, then combined with additional onion and the green sauce.
The accompaniments are chips, salsa, rice and ranchero beans. Cooked with onion, tomatoes and, yes, a little lard, the beans are half mashed and half whole. They’re seasoned with oregano and vinegar from house-made curtido — pickled jalapeños, onions and carrots. For a drink, order jamaica. Naturally flavored and less sweet than most versions, it’s made with two types of dried hibiscus flowers from Mexico.
Teresita is Teresa Campos from Teúl, Zacatecas, who opened a small restaurant called Puerto Nuevo in Los Angeles in 1983. In 1994 the restaurant moved to its current location and was renamed Teresitas.
Viola Herrera Gutierrez makes extraordinary chile verde at her restaurant, Don Rogelio’s. The lively flavor comes from tomatillos, garlic, cumin and three types of chiles — güero, Anaheim and just a touch of serrano, so that the sauce won’t be too hot. The meat is a choice of pork or chicken.
Herrera has tasted chile verde all over town to see how hers stacks up. It comes with small, thick handmade tortillas, fresh salsa, chips and good beans and rice. “My customers have to have everything special,” she says.
Don Rogelio’s advertises Tex-Mex food because Herrera is from Corpus Christi, Texas. Rogelio was her late husband. The restaurant is in a quirky collection of brightly painted buildings. It’s decorated with random objects and artwork, including teddy bears, a cowboy hat and a framed photo of Pope John Paul II in the tiny comedor (dining room).
There are just four tables in the comedor, so most of the seating is outdoors on the patio. The main building houses a deli and kitchen with two small tables, which is where the restaurant started seven years ago.
10618 S. Inglewood Ave., Inglewood. (310) 677-1510.
Tamayo Restaurant and Art Gallery
A polished waitstaff, pricey art on the walls and a wine closet with high-end bottles: This is Tamayo Restaurant and Art Gallery in East Los Angeles, which is named for the Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo. Housed in a large, hacienda-style building with high, beamed ceilings, a tiled floor and original Tamayos in the bar and dining room, it’s a majestic place to eat very good chile verde.
The thick, velvety green sauce coats meat so tender that it falls apart when you spoon it up. The meat is pork butt, cooked in the sauce — a purée of tomatillos, pasilla chiles, cilantro, green onions, roasted garlic, cumin and white pepper — for three hours. Despite the chile, the dish isn’t spicy-hot, but rather has a rich, subtle flavor and is blended so thoroughly that the tomatillo seeds, obvious in most versions of chile verde, barely show.
On the side are beans and an orange dome of rice. This is not the usual tomato-colored Mexican rice: The color and flavor come from bijol, a condiment that originated in Cuba. As prelude: a basket of chips in three colors to dip in three salsas — an oddly sweet tomatillo salsa, a tomato salsa and a dark, very hot salsa.
Owner and manager Humberto Veloso devised the chile verde, which has been prepared by Alfonso Rolon, the chef, for the last 28 years. Rolon is from the Mexican state of Colima. Veloso, from Brazil, is the collector who has turned the two-story building into an art gallery.
5300 E. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 260-4700, tamayo-la.com