It wasn’t until this last decade that our nation achieved widespread queso familiarity. Before that, queso—for people outside of Texas—was a nebulous concept. Most knew it as the Spanish word for cheese, but few understood it as a stand-alone dish.
I am one such Tex-Mex noob. A friend from Houston once said she’d bring a pot of queso to a party. My Upper Midwest Yank friends and I reacted with blank stares. When we finally tasted this mysterious queso, it was glorious—hot, peppery liquid cheese with tortilla chips as its delivery vehicle.
Hoping to expand my queso know-how, I reached out to the authority on the subject: Homesick Texan writer Lisa Fain, who’s written an entire book (out September 26) devoted to the art and culture of the chili-cheese dip. In one 30-minute conversation with her, my appreciation for queso quadrupled.
The A.V. Club: Describe your relationship with queso.
Lisa Fain: Queso for most Texans of my generation was ubiquitous. It was at every party, every church gathering, eaten after school. It was a simple thing that’s the foundation of every gathering that we had. When you talk to Texans, they feel that things like barbecue and chicken-fried steak and Tex-Mex—they figure the whole world eats like this. I’m a seventh-generation Texan, but I’ve lived in New York for 20 years. When I got to New York and couldn’t find Rotel and Velveeta, which are the building blocks for home queso, it was such a shock. It fueled my obsession with queso.
AVC: How does one categorize queso? Is it an appetizer? A party food? Accompaniment with dinner?
LF: Classically, it’s a party food and an appetizer. You go to a Tex-Mex restaurant, you begin the meal with a free basket of tortilla chips and salsa, and if you’re feeling wild, you’ll also get a bowl of queso. It’s also a party food: If you go to someone’s house, there’s usually a crock pot or fondue pot full of queso, and at most parties, it ends up being the focal point. You walk in and everyone’s gathered around the pot; it’s almost this primal thing. And you can make a main dish out of it, too, but classic Tex-Mex queso is a fun food.
AVC: Queso can be used as a mother sauce.
LF: It’s definitely a mother sauce. You see it on enchiladas, burgers, as a dipping sauce for taquitos and flautas. In El Paso, they have a style of huevos rancheros where instead of the classic tomato ranchero sauce, they use queso. It’s basically a Tex-Mex Mornay sauce. That’s a more unique application, but it’s go-to is as a starter and party food.
AVC: What do Yankees need to understand about queso’s role in Texan culture?
LF: It’s ubiquitous and it’s beloved. If you throw a party and don’t have queso, it’s like a faux pas. Everyone expects it. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t love queso. We use it to celebrate good times, we use it to alleviate the pain in bad times. If you’re having a bad day, you gather your friends, get some Topo Chico and margaritas, you sit around a bowl of queso and work it out. And the thing about queso is it’s cheese—the proteins in cheese actually have this opioid-like, soporific effect, so when you eat dairy you feel better naturally. And chile peppers stimulate you. It’s creamy, spicy, a bit tangy—it hits all the exciting places in your mouth and in your mind. It’s impossible to have a bad time with queso. Even my vegan friends miss it.
AVC: What are the common misconceptions about queso?
LF: I grew up in Houston. My family’s from the Dallas area. I was in El Paso for the first time and my friend said, “Get the chile con queso. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever had.” It’s not like the classic processed cheese that you find in the rest of state. What they call chile con queso in El Paso, which of course is still Texas, is similar to what you get across the border in Mexico: It’s white cheese, such as asadero, Monterey jack, or Muenster, with green chiles, aromatics, and tomatoes. And it’s delicious! You can eat it with chips, tortilla, smothered on steak. It’s served in the same way as queso in the rest of the state, but it’s completely different. So when I tell people about this El Paso chile con queso, their eyes open. Most people think it’s just processed cheese.
AVC: Queso is not just yellow or orange.
AVC: Can you offer a quick primer on how to make queso?
LF: This is how most folks make the basic two-ingredient queso: Take a pound of Velveeta. Chop it up, put it in a double boiler, then pour a can of Rotel and heat it on low, stirring everything together. That’s the baseline. And then you can throw different things in it.
AVC: So I want to up my queso game and make something a bit more refined. Any rookie mistakes to avoid?
LF: I’d suggest you try the Austin diner-style queso, which will hit everyone’s pleasure centers of what true Tex-Mex queso is. This version is with American cheese, so you don’t want to get Velveeta. Ask for a pound of American cheese from the deli counter, and they’ll slice it for you. Or if you buy it in a package—I wouldn’t use Kraft Singles, rather the Kraft Deli Deluxe version. It’ll give you a stronger cheese flavor. Also when making the sauce, make sure to bring it to a simmer so the cornstarch actually thickens.
Makes 6-8 servings
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
4 jalapeños, seeded and finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Anaheim chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 cup whole milk
1 cup water
1 lb. white or yellow American cheese, shredded
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Pico de gallo
1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onion and jalapeños and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and Anaheims and cook for 30 seconds longer.
2. Whisk together the cornstarch, milk, and water until well combined, then pour into the pan. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook for a couple of minutes until the mixture begins to thicken. Add the cheese, turn down the heat to low, and cook, stirring, until the cheese has melted. Stir in the cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and salt, then taste and adjust the seasonings, if you like.
3. Transfer the queso to a serving bowl, a small slow cooker, or a chafing dish over a flame. Spoon guacamole and pico de gallo into the center of the queso. Serve warm with tortilla chips.
Reprinted with permission from Queso! by Lisa Fain, copyright © 2017. Photography by Aubrie Pick. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Purchase the book here, which helps support The A.V. Club.