Striking Liquid Gold, Texas-Style
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Texans take a simple, almost unattractive, food and make something delicious and interesting out of it, also known as “Reason No. 138 why you don’t mess with Texas.”
It takes a certain kind of people to want to eat vast quantities of Velveeta cheese. Those people are called Texans.
Texas is known for its Tex-Mex cuisine, that heavy, cheesy love child of Mexican food that introduced fajitas and nachos to the world. But in the major cities of Texas, a Tex-Mex restaurant is only as good as its queso. Of course, queso is the Spanish word for cheese, but in Texas, we’re talking about something entirely different. In fact, it’s been called “A Texan’s Sixth Food Group.”
Stroll into any Tex-Mex restaurant in the state and you’ll see a common scene: groups of people barely speaking, tortilla chips in hand, hovered around a small bowl filled with a yellow substance. These people are deep in the throes of queso bliss; it’s best not to disturb them to ask questions, so we’ll answer them here.
This is nacho mama’s nacho cheese.
So what is this queso they love so much?
Queso is the Texas shorthand term for chile con queso, which is literally just chilies with cheese. But that may even be overselling it.
You see, it is not just any old cheese that can make a queso. You pretty much need something that many people might consider a noncheese, or at least anathema to adult cuisine: a big old log of Velveeta. But you’ll want to get off your high horse for this. Even Alex Padilla, executive chef of the iconic Houston Tex-Mex restaurant the Original Ninfa’s, says, “If someone says they’re not using Velveeta to make queso, they’re lying.”
But this is nacho mama’s nacho cheese. In fact, the Austin versions of queso often get closer to a full meal and are frequently found with a scoop of guacamole plopped into the center of the bowl. Down in Houston, they are purists, and their queso usually comes with nothing more than a basket of hot chips, which is why it’s been called “liquid gold.”
As for which is the best, you’ll have to judge for yourself, based on a variety of queso algorithms (color, consistency, spice, chips, etc.). In each city, top queso lists can help guide your way (of which there are many, many, many).
But even though you are unlikely to find good, true-to-Texas versions of queso outside of the state, don’t despair. Domenic Laurenzo, Houston’s El Tiempo chef, assures, “It’s totally something anyone can do at home.”
Did we mention it’s tailgate season? So pass the margaritas and take a dip into the state snack of Texas.
Basic Queso Recipe:
- 1 can (10 oz.) Ro-Tel Original Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies, undrained
- 1 pkg. (16 oz.) Velveeta, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Yes there are only two ingredients. Heat together in a saucepan, stirring frequently, for five minutes. Or just zap them in the microwave for about nine minutes total, stirring at intervals. Optional: add a splash of milk or water to alter the consistency to your desire. You just want a smooth mixture. Then serve immediately. Pro tip: You have about a 10-minute window before the mixture cools and an unappealing skin forms over it, so get your queso hover on quick.
Serve with tortilla chips (or raw veggies like carrots or sugar snap peas if you’re feeling guilty, though you’ll kind of miss the point). Try to get more natural-style tortilla chips, like El Milagro, rather than Tostitos, as the super-saltiness of some brands leads to a salt blowout when paired with queso.
If you insist on fighting against the Velveeta wave, here is a more natural recipe to try, from the Homesick Texan.
Classic Texas Queso Spots to Try:
- Austin: Torchy’s Tacos, Matt’s Famous El Rancho (which adds ground beef), Kerbey Lane (which adds a scoop of sour cream), Magnolia Cafe (which adds layers of refried beans)
- Dallas: Matt’s Rancho Martinez, Alligator Cafe (which adds alligator), Taco Joint, Mr. Mesero (a white queso)
- El Paso: Carlos & Mickey’s, L&J Café (with green chiles), G&R Restaurant
- Houston: Original Ninfa’s, El Tiempo, Lupe’s, Pappasito’s, Molina’s (which adds ground beef)
- San Antonio: Paloma Blanca, Alamo Café, Mama Margie’s