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Relleno revival 

After nine years, Estela's returns to Eighth Street and pours wonderful chiles over hit-or-miss dishes

Much unlike boomerangs, pathetic exes and herpes, restaurants rarely come back. When they close, it's almost always for good.

But there are exceptions, like Estela's Mexican Restaurant on the hill above the Eighth Street Wal-Mart. Originally open from 1993 to 2000, it shuttered while still popular due to an illness in the Mares family, according to owner John Morales, husband of original operator Susie Mares. For the past nine years, the family leased out the space for private parties and short-lived ventures like Reuben's Fusion, which lasted only three months in early 2008.

Pinched by high property taxes and lack of renter's income, Morales says he sat down in early 2009 with the Mares family — which also runs Pueblo's 28-year-old Mill Stop Café — and convinced them to let him reopen and run Estela's. Since mid-July, he's been offering the establishment's closely-guarded original recipes, and he's enjoyed relatively stable business, with many old customers returning for favorites.

Estela's low-ceilinged, off-white brick and stucco dining room, adorned with Mexican art and divided into three main sections around a long bar, was mostly full on both my lunch and dinner visits. It was so busy during the former, in fact, that our friendly waitress was slow in returning for our entrée orders after dropping complimentary warm tortilla chips, a spicy pico de gallo and fairly mute red and green sauces.

A mix of chicken and beef taquitos ($7.75, six of each) — mildly seasoned, deep-fried mini corn tortilla wraps served with sour cream and guacamole — scored satisfactory as a starter. The chile con queso ($7.25) of viscous melted cheese and green chile unsurprisingly proved a more popular (though far from heart-healthy) option.

In the same vein, my chile relleno plate ($9.50) had us completely ignoring a drab vegetarian plate of avocado tostadas ($9.75), basically just a trio of hard corn tortillas smattered with a thin layer of guac and topped with thick handfuls of tasteless shredded iceberg lettuce and a dusting of cheese and tomato hunks. The rellenos, which I special-ordered with both red and green chile, were, by contrast, Mexican gut-bomb at its finest: thick pockets of bright yellow American cheese oozing out of two lightly battered chile peppers, drowning our forks as they mixed with gravy-thick chile, refried bean paste and a super-tomatoey Mexican rice.

Estela's chiles, made daily from scratch by Morales and his brothers-in-law, who commute from the Mill Stop, are a highlight. Focused more on flavor than heat (they have little to none), the green brings large, tender pork hunks and the red a wonderful earthy flavor.

True to Pueblo style, most dishes are smothered in your chile choice. The technique works well on the Huevos Rancheros ($7.95), two eggs, beans and rice under the chile and odd-shaped potato slivers, as well as on El Burro ($9.25 to $9.75), a hefty chicken- or beef-stuffed flour tortilla with all the fixins. Unfortunately, it didn't save our Mexican steak ($11.95), an inferior-tasting top sirloin cut.

Two factors that help compensate for the sporadic shortcomings: solid flour tortillas served with most plates (or $.50 each) and outstanding, authentic sopapillas served with honey and cinnamon sugar as a free sweet ($1 each for more) with every dinner.

It's touches like that — Estela's doesn't even offer a supplementary dessert menu — that make it clear to me why several locals have celebrated this return.

matthew@csindy.com

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