Saw a social media post by a friend regarding queso, that incredibly delicious, ephemeral joy from points south. Now, this gal is a Fort Worth, (AKA Fo’t Wuth, Cowtown), born and bred Texan, a budding food professional, and she knows what she likes. She’s an unabashed advocate of the ‘there’s only two ingredients that go into real queso,’ school. Frankly, I’m not, although I’ll admit, I’ll eat the hell out of a fresh batch of that stuff when it’s offered, ‘cause we are gathered here today to talk about queso – Real deal queso.
Cheese sauces are ubiquitous in every country that makes and eats cheese. It’s a natural progression to think about changing the texture of something you love, and heat is one of the great ways to do just that – It also pretty much requires one to eat the results right away, which doesn’t suck as a concept, either.
Queso has Mexican roots, and the common saw about this dish is that it comes strictly from northern Mexico, just under the border with Los Estados Unidos – the true roots are deeper and broader than that. That fact also belies the mistaken belief that ‘real’ queso is made with Velveeta or an analog thereof – It stems from far more honorable cheeses – real cheeses – so, sorry Tejas – It just ain’t so.
In fact, many joints in Texas, either Tex-Mex or regional authentic, have long gotten away from using that pasteurized processed cheese food, (AKA, substances engaged in cheese-like activity), or never used it for their queso in the first place, thank the gods. My fave authentic place in Fort Worth, Benito’s, in the hospital district, has always used real Mexican cheese in their stunningly delicious queso flameado, (more about that version in a bit.)
Now, that version made with Velveeta? There are actually a couple derivations of that, too. One school likes the cheese-like stuff with salsa mixed in, while the purists insist it’s Velveeta with Rotel canned tomato and green chile blend. The problem with this is, once again, that the cheese isn’t really cheese at all – It’s made from, and I quote – Milk, Water, Whey, Milk Protein Concentrate, Milkfat, Whey Protein Concentrate, Sodium Phosphate, Contains 2% or less of: Salt, Calcium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Alginate, Enzymes, Apocarotenal, Annatto, Cheese Culture. There’s a reason it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, has a seven week shelf life, and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated after it’s been opened – Get the picture? The other issue is the Rotel stuff – Now, I like their products, but with anything canned, you need a long, slow cooking process to get that metallic taste out of the picture, and queso is not that kind of vehicle. So, that said, on to the real deal.
Queso, (sometimes chile con queso – literally chiles with cheese), speaks to what rightfully should be in the mix. Of course there are variants, as there should be, from queso flameado, to fundido, and choriqueso, to a myriad of one offs – Those will depend on where they’re made and who the chef is, of course. As with all signature dishes, everyone makes one, and theirs is the best, (usually, they’re right). Queso is simply a vehicle for whatever combination tastes good to you.
It is true that the most popular version found in El Norté hailed originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, home to its namesake cheese. Queso Chihuahua is a fairly firm, pale yellow, cows milk cheese, with a rich, buttery flavor. It’s also known as queso menonita, after the Mennonite communities established there in the 19th century – They’re the folks that introduced the stuff. It’s also known as queso campresino, which speaks to the production method – very much like that used to make cheddar, and in fact, queso chihuahua is considered a member of cheddar family. Like that famous cousin, this stuff starts out mild, then develops notable sharpness and depth of character with age – It also melts really well, which makes it a great cheese for queso sauce, si? This also explains why good, fresh cheddar makes great queso and is not, as some purists would claim, a blasphemous choice for the dish.
That said, great Mexican cheeses are far more available than they used to be, and if you’ve never tried them, you should – There are several that are go to’s for queso. These are one of the very few pleasant products of the Spanish presence in Mexico, as the locals didn’t have anything to do with dairy prior to the invasion. Great cheese is now a long standing tradition down there, with many stellar examples of the art – They’re ranked in the top ten of world production and consumption. Mexican Manchego, unlike its sheeps milk Spanish cousin, is made from cows milk. It has a distinct, nutty taste and melts well. Queso Oaxaca is a soft, mild white string cheese – It’s also a good melter. There’s also Asadero, a semi-soft, creamy cheese that comes from Chihuahua that’s similar to Monterrey Jack. Some folks mistakenly call this queso quesadilla, which will generally get you laughed at down in Mexico. There are many, many more small batch, one off and regional cheeses in Mexico, some of which have laws protecting the use of their names, like Cotija and queso de bola from Chiapas. Sadly, you’re unlikely to find most of them up here.
Any and all of those will make a fine queso, which speaks to the fact that your version need not be made from a single cheese. Like great mac and cheese, a blend will provide a deeper and more complex taste profile, which is rarely a bad thing. For that matter, you needn’t go to and buy cheese specifically to make queso – It’s often made to use up what’s in the pantry and ready to go. Cheddar, Jack, Swiss, Colby, whatever you’ve got will do just fine. Next time you’re shopping, check out the Mexican varieties for something special.
One thing you’ll see on a lot of menus is the claim that they use only ‘white cheese’ for their queso, without much elaboration past that, unless you ask. The primary reason for this, frankly, is to differentiate themselves from the velveeta versions – Good to know when you’re out for a nosh. In any case, it’s not necessary to only use white cheese when you make it at home – yellow cheddar will not get you in trouble with the queso policia. Hell, I’ve used leftover Brie in the mix and been very pleased with the results.
Now, those famous derivations, queso fundido, choriqueso, and queso flameado? The differences between the them are this – The first two are melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo, and the last one is melted cheese, chiles, and chorizo set on fire – Yep, that’s pretty much it. All are fundamentally the same, though again, every place has a mix of their own, adding onion, garlic, tomato, sweet peppers, and various spices, and yeah, in a good place like Benito’s, the flameado is done table side, flambéed right there as you watch and cheer.
When done correctly, the cheese is prepared separately from the chiles, chorizo, and any additional spices, and then combined right before the dish is served, just like Benito’s does it. Flameado is, of course, flambéed with tequila that has been briefly warmed on a stove top to make it that much more flammable. When it’s prepared at table, a long careful pour of the flaming, melted cheese into the other ingredients makes for quite a show, but please – As the saying goes, don’t try this at home if you’ve already put a dent in the tequila bottle.
Here’s our go to version. As with all things recipe, do what you like. You do not need chorizo if you don’t want the full Monty, but done up like this, it’s not an appetizer, it’s a meal. Again, if you don’t have the Mexican cheeses, just use a blend of what you do have in the way of melting cheeses – It’ll be just fine.
Queso de UrbanMonique
1/2 Cup Chihuahua, Asadero, or Oaxaca Cheese
1/2 Cup Extra Sharp Cheddar
1/4 Cup Monterrey Jack
1/4 Pound fresh Chorizo
4-6 Hatch Chiles (Anaheim’s will do)
2-4 Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles
1/2 Sweet Onion
2 Cloves fresh Garlic
6-8 stems fresh Cilantro
2 Ounces Tequila (No rotgut)
1 Ounce Avocado Oil
1/2 teaspoon Mexican Oregano
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
If you like your tortillas or chips warm, preheat oven to 200° F, wrap them in foil, and place on a middle rack.
Grate all cheeses and blend thoroughly.
Rinse, stem, seed, devein, and dice all chiles.
Peel, trim and dice the onion.
Peel, trim and mince the garlic.
Rinse, trim and dice the tomato.
Rinse and mince the cilantro.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the chorizo, about 3-5 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with clean paper towel and set aside.
Deglaze the hot pan with the tequila, scraping up all the dark bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the oil to the hot pan, and when heated through, add onion and chiles – Sauté until chiles soften and onion starts to turn translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, 1-2 minutes.
Add the tomato, cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to incorporate. Cook until those ingredients are heated through, about another 2-3 minutes.
Remove the sautéed veggie blend to the plate with the chorizo. Remove the pan from heat, wipe any excess oil from it, then return drained chorizo and veggies to the pan to stay warm.
Remove tortillas and/or chips from oven and set aside.
Preheat oven to broil and set a rack in a slot that leaves about 6” from the broiler element.
Place cheese in an 8” x 8” oven proof casserole or baking pan. Broil until the cheese is completely melted, bubbling, and starting to brown, about 4-6 minutes.
Bring cheese pan to the table and set on a trivet or hot pad. Carefully add veggie and chorizo blend to the cheese and stir to incorporate.
Scarf it all down with icy cold Mexican beer.