Mexico has a great tradition of meatless eating. Prior to the Spanish conquest, meat was scarce in Mexico, yet Mexicans created one of the world's most vibrant ancient cuisines. Meat has always been plentiful on this side of the border—we're awash in fajitas, chili con carne, extruded tamales, and even the Whopperito.
For my money, the best Chicano vegetarian option is the chile relleno burrito: quite literally, a burrito with a chile relleno inside. While there doesn't appear to be any clear evidence, it seems to originate from Los Angeles. In Portland, finding cheese-and-pepper-stuffed burritos is relatively easy, especially if the joint has an L.A. pedigree—look for carne asada fries, California burritos (often renamed "Oregon burritos" here), or pastrami.
In Los Angeles, chile relleno burritos can be as simple as a tortilla and refried beans wrapped around a chile relleno. In Portland, you find more complex incarnations, corrupted by Mission burritos. Few, if any, have merely beans and a relleno inside, unfortunately. Most have rice, too, along with salsa or pico de gallo, sometimes lettuce or even sour cream and runny guacamole. Too many ingredients, though, and the flavor of the chile relleno can get lost. (You can optimize your relleno burrito by ordering it without rice and with extra cheese.) Rellenos can use the thinner-fleshed and wider poblano chiles or the thicker-fleshed and narrower, but more assertive, Anaheims. Some are battered in egg; all are stuffed with cheese.
I tried more than 50 chile relleno burritos around town (full disclosure, I own two Mexican restaurants in Portland, though we don't sell relleno burritos) and went back to about a dozen of the best, just to make sure. Here are my favorites, ranked from top to bottom. All of them are good. The rankings are based on the eateries' default burritos, some of which have larded beans, as noted in each review.
1. Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon
16223 NE Glisan St., 503-255-4356, salsaslocas.com.
Tienda de Leon is known for its Mexican stews, but it might be tough for a carnivore to pass up the barbacoa or achiote-braised pork. Unfortunately for a vegetarian, the refried beans, which are some of the best in PDX, are cooked in lard. To get a vegetarian version of a chile relleno burrito, ask for the vegan black beans.
The burritos are all customized on the fly and wrapped in housemade flour tortillas. Ask for one of the excellent egg-battered chile rellenos in the burrito, and the kitchen will chop it up and mix it with whatever fillings you like. A little beans, some extra cheese, and a squirt of salsa is all you need. This would probably drop below the next best burrito if you insisted on having vegetarian beans. $10.
2. La Cocina
3939 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-278-5414.
The size of the menu and casual ambience of this place belie a commitment to quality akin to gourmet Mexican restaurants. The menu says whole-wheat tortillas and Cotija cheese for the chile relleno burrito, but on both visits, thankfully, it was a fresh poblano chile stuffed with lots of gooey, white cheese with very good rice and decent beans in a white-flour tortilla. A large helping of delicious guacamole, along with pickled carrots and pico de gallo, comes on the side. $8.75.
15855 SE McLoughlin Blvd., Milwaukie, 503-659-8124, rigobertostacoshop.com.
The San Diego lineage is clear in both the name and the menu at this Milwaukie taqueria. And like its cousins, Javier's and Muchas Gracias, it's open 24 hours. But this is the cousin that knows how to cook. Everything is proportioned and seasoned well, and the bit of extra cheese and red sauce makes for a tasty burrito. Take note: The refried beans have lard, so if you want a vegetarian burrito, ask for the whole pintos. It's better with the larded beans. And Rigoberto's has a drive-thru. $6.50.
4. Taqueria Hermanos Ochoa's
943 SE Oak St., Hillsboro, 503-640-4755.
Every tacoholic in Portland knows about this Hillsboro institution. Quality has fluctuated through the many years it has been open, but currently, things are looking up. You could forgive a place like this that mostly serves Mexican immigrants for not knowing how to make a good California burrito. Yet, Ochoa's needs no excuses. The beans, rice, chile—even the egg on the chile—all taste great on their own and still harmonize like a Los Tres Ases bolero. Note: Ochoa's does not have vegetarian beans. $7.
5. La Bonita
2839 NE Alberta St., 503-281-3662, labonitarestaurant.com.
Since before hipsters "discovered" tacos and white faces outnumbered brown ones on Alberta, this family-run taqueria decorated with murals has been serving high-quality tacos, burritos, tamales and pozole. The large chile relleno oozes a slow tidal wave of cheese and is the star of the burrito, despite too much bland rice and lettuce. $6.95.
6. El Burrito Loco
3126 NE 82nd Ave., 503-252-1343.
This is a little slice of SoCal taco culture on 82nd Avenue. The shop even has pastrami sandwiches and carne asada fries. In true L.A. style, the chile relleno burrito is served sin arroz. The beans could be seasoned better, but El Burrito Loco doubles up on the Anaheim chiles. A splash of salsa and a little pico de gallo wrapped up in a nicely toasted tortilla rounded out a solid burrito. And there's a drive-thru. $5.75.
7. La Jarochita
Southwest 5th Avenue and Stark Street, 503-421-9838.
It's not surprising that the best Mexican food cart downtown also makes an enjoyable chile relleno burrito. The rice and beans were both underseasoned, but the poblano chile was big and full of cheese, the egg was fresh-tasting, and there were great salsas to cover up any flaws. La Jarochita is close to opening a brick-and-mortar spot to join its multiple downtown carts. $6.
Related: Portland's Tamales, Ranked
703 SW Ankeny St., 503-956-7624.
As famous for the restroom it shares with Portland's oldest strip club (and the chance to see some chichis) as it is for its food, Santeria knows how to make a burrito. The chile relleno can be a bit fridge-flavored, but a nicely grilled tortilla, good pintos, an avocado salsa and, especially, lots of cheese save it. It's open late. $10.50.
9. Tito's Burritos
1921 SW 6th Ave,, 971-319-6650.
With two carts and a full-sized restaurant on the Portland State campus, Tito's has already proved itself in the marketplace. So has Chipotle. But Chipotle doesn't have a chile relleno burrito, and if it did, like its other burritos, it wouldn't taste as good as the one from Tito's. A blistered-brown tortilla wraps an Anaheim chile filled with cheese that stretches to your chin with each bite. More cheese, along with pico de gallo, and a bit too much rice and beans fill the rest of the tortilla. $6.99.
Also tried: El Brasero, El Burrito Azteca, Casa del Sol, La Catrina, Chavez Express, Chuy's (Gresham), Don Chilito's (Aloha), Don Taco (Vancouver), La Fuente (Tigard), Gonazlez (Newberg), Los Gorditos, El Guajillo (Tigard), El Guero, Hacienda Real (Beaverton), Javier's, King Burrito, Lindo Michoacan, Luna, Mi Burrito, La Mixteca (Fairview), La Morenita, Muchas Gracias, Nayar, El Nutri, Ole Frijole, Ole Ole, El Pato Feliz, Pepitas (Beaverton), Pepitos Locos, Peppers (Hillsboro), Rose City, Sabor Mexicano (Vancouver), Sanchez (Tigard), Santo Domingo, La Sirenita, Super Burrito Express (Milwaukie), Super Torta, Supermercado Mexico (Hillsboro), Taco del Sol (Tigard), El Tapatio, Taqueria Portland, Taquieros, Los Taquitos, Tecos, Los Temos (Milwaukie), Tienda Santa Cruz.
Supermercado Mexico (Hillsboro)
Best SoCal treat
Asada fries from Don Taco (Vancouver)
Pastrami quesadilla from El Burrito Loco
Asada tots from Tecos