Served alongside warm tortilla chips, chile con queso is the unofficial dish of Texas. Most frequently referred to as just “queso,” at its simplest, it’s just a mixture of cheese and chile peppers. But especially in Texas, queso is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Throughout the years, the popularity of chile con queso has grown far outside its birthplaces (yes, plural). It’s made its way to menus at restaurants across the country, from Atlanta to New York City. And earlier this month, both Chipotle and Wendy’s introduced their own versions of chile con queso in response to consumer demand for the melty, cheesy dip. “All of our competitors sell queso, and we know some customers don’t come to Chipotle because we don’t offer it,” Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells proclaimed during the queso dip’s announcement.
“Wendy’s has found a cure for your queso obsession,” the chain’s release cried, noting the brand would add the cheese to bacon fries, burgers, and chicken sandwiches.
Whether or not those fast-food versions truly represent the essence of chile con queso, there’s no disputing that this humble dish’s rich history is influenced by the diverse cultures and flavors that create the region's melting-pot culinary identity.
The origins of queso
Chile con queso doesn’t have one single origin story. According to one, in 1900, a restaurateur named Otis Farnsworth opened the Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, essentially creating the model for the modern Tex-Mex restaurant. “Farnsworth came up with the idea of building a Mexican restaurant for Anglos in the commercial district and staffing it with Latinos,” wrote Texas food historian Robb Walsh in 2008. “Gentlemen were required to wear a jacket to dine there. It became the most successful Mexican restaurant in the state.” One of the most popular dishes on the menu? Chile con queso.
According to Lisa Fain, who writes as the Homesick Texan, the original recipe for Farnsworth’s chile con queso is lost, and it’s unclear exactly what kind of cheese was used. “The first recipe I found in the state of Texas was written in the early 1920s and published in a San Antonio women’s organization cookbook,” Fain says. “That recipe used American cheese, and it might be similar to what [Farnsworth] served in his restaurants.”
Unlike the gooey cheese dishes of Mexico, which are traditionally made with melting cheeses like queso asadero or Chihuahua (a soft white cheese), chile con queso in the States has pretty much always been made with processed American cheese — at least, since the ingredient was invented. Popularized by James L. Kraft in the 1910s, processed cheese was revolutionary in the food processing industry. According to the New York Times, Kraft invented a method that involved heating cheddar cheese to 175 degrees while continuously whipping air into the mix. That process made the cheese more shelf stable, which allowed for it to be shipped across the country.
Later, in the 1930s, the neon-orange block of goodness known as Velveeta would be the culmination of Kraft’s dream to produce the most consumer-friendly cheese product on the planet. Now, the combination of milk, water, whey milk protein, milk fat, whey protein, and sodium phosphate is, according to its makers, America’s favorite cheese brand.
In a recent interview, Walsh suggests that the use of processed cheese in chile con queso became popular among Tejano families in Texas as a way to “use up their government cheese,” also inspiring other popular Tex-Mex dishes like the ubiquitous cheese-filled enchiladas. While it is true that the U.S. government began purchasing large quantities of cheese as early as the 1930s in order to support U.S. dairy farmers, it wasn’t directly distributed in large quantities to families until the Reagan administration, when the term “government cheese” was popularized.
And according to Fain, everyone was using processed cheese during the era of queso’s rise, regardless of economic status. “You see a lot of these recipes with Velveeta or American cheese in Junior League and ladies’ club cookbooks, which would be targeting a much higher socioeconomic class than someone receiving government cheese,” she says. “Velveeta was advertised as a health food originally, but it really goes back to the fact that it’s delicious and easy to work with. Now, where I live in New York, Velveeta and American cheese cost more than so-called ‘real cheese.’”
Until the 1940s, chile con queso was difficult to make at home without access to fresh jalapenos or green chiles. According to Fain, most early American recipes for the dish get their heat from powdered cayenne and paprika. In 1943, though, an enterprising farmer named Carl Roettele opened a cannery in Elsa, Texas, where he introduced a signature blend of tomatoes canned with spicy green chiles. According to the company, Roettele worried that his name would be difficult for consumers to pronounce, so he shortened it to Ro-Tel, and a legend was born.
From the time it was introduced, Ro-Tel hitched its wagon to processed cheese, producing early advertisements that encouraged home cooks to make their “cheese dip” with Velveeta and Ro-Tel. That partnership continues today, with millions of dollars spent between Kraft and ConAgra (who now own Velveeta and Ro-Tel, respectively) each year in joint television advertising.
From there, chile con queso staked its place as a popular party dish. With Velveeta and Ro-Tel now widely available on grocery store shelves, home cooks could simply warm the block of processed cheese with a can of tomatoes to produce a dip that was always consistent, and always perfectly smooth. “The first recipe with Velveeta I could find was written in Lubbock in 1939,” says Fain. “From that point on, there was no looking back. It became the cheese to use for chile con queso. American cheese has more dairy in it, so you have to add stabilizers. You need starch and liquids to stabilize the sauce. And who doesn’t love processed cheese? It’s salty, it’s tangy, it’s delicious.”
Queso’s regional variations
But the dish has a much broader history than the simple Velveeta/Ro-Tel combination, and regional influences make each version of chile con queso slightly different.
In West Texas, particularly El Paso, chile con queso isn’t always served as a dip, and it’s frequently made with white cheddar, which produces a less smooth and dippable queso that’s more similar to Mexican cheese dishes like queso fundido. El Paso-style queso is also generally made with chopped fresh chiles, as opposed to the canned tomato variety. That same style of chile con queso can also be found in regions of New Mexico, the home of much-renowned Hatch green chiles.
Last year, the state of Arkansas ruffled plenty of Texans’ feathers when it staked a claim to chile con queso, arguing that the dish was invented in a Little Rock Mexican restaurant in the mid-1930s, where it’s simply known as “cheese dip.” The assertion even inspired a Congressional battle, where Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas pitted his state’s dip against a version of chile con queso offered up by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. According to the panel of judges (aka Cruz and Cotton’s fellow senators), Arkansas actually came out on top.
“The classic cheese dip at all the temples of cheese dip in Little Rock is processed cheese, it’s usually made with chile powder,” Fain says. “What they’re serving in Little Rock is interesting. That recipe is very old-fashioned, and that’s how the very early recipes were made because green chiles were very expensive, even in Texas; they weren’t widely available until the 1930s.”
According to Fain, who spent the last few years researching her forthcoming cookbook Queso, Arkansas’s claim to the dip’s invention isn’t exactly legitimate. “I wanted to find out what the true history was, and found that the man who opened the restaurant in Arkansas was actually a Texan,” she says. “He opened a restaurant called Mexico Chiquito in Longview, then took it to Little Rock. That whole claim is just bogus.” Whether or not this claim of ownership is legit, cheese dip is still immensely popular in Arkansas. The state even boasts a “Cheese Dip Trail” map on its official website, pointing tourists to vaunted cheese dip purveyors, like Casa Manana Rock and Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro in Little Rock.
Now that queso is hitting fast-food restaurants, the recipe is changing even more. Chipotle’s new offering, marketed as an “all-natural” version, features more than 20 different ingredients, including bizarre inclusions like red-wine vinegar and cheese cultures; it proudly advertises that it contains “no added flavors, colors, gums, or other industrial additives found in typical queso.” (As Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema noted, that results in a queso that’s “notably bland, with virtually no heat or discernible chile flavor despite that it’s flecked red and green.”) At Wendy’s, poblano peppers add a dose of heat to traditional processed cheese.
Queso today, queso forever
In recent years, queso has earned a bit of a bad rap, especially from food critics. Last year, Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner freely admitted to hating most versions of chile con queso, calling it a “baby-food version of Mexican food.”
“Having lived in Georgia for the last 20 years, restaurants don’t put enough thought into queso,” says Texas-born chef Ford Fry, who currently lives in Atlanta. “What we see is white, processed cheese thinned down with milk, and they ask you if you want chopped-up pickled jalapenos added after the fact. Even in Texas, some make it too thick with straight-up processed yellow cheese.” According to Fry, the perfect cheese ratio for chile con queso is 75 percent “Easy-Melt” (aka processed American cheese) and 25 percent Chihuahua, a soft white melting cheese.
Beyond those basic versions, chefs everywhere are serving up both traditional and funky versions of the dish, which remains a top-seller for any restaurant with Tex-Mex flair. Fry serves multiple varieties of queso at his restaurant Superica, all of which are based in the traditional combination of American cheese and chiles.
In Dallas, chef Sandy Bussey has fused together the richness and funk of Korean kimchi and processed cheese to produce a truly Texan fusion in kimchi queso. Instead of Ro-Tel tomatoes, Bussey combines two different types of kimchi — one freshly fermented, the other aged to a deeper funk — with Velveeta and milk, along with a squirt of gochujang. The resulting queso isn’t quite as spicy as the traditional Tex-Mex version, but offers its own kind of heat. At Austin’s restaurant Whip In, the chiles are swapped for an Indian-influenced jalapeno chutney. “It’s genius,” Fain says. “It’s the perfect combination of these two cuisines and it works so well.”
These unique fusions, and the enduring popularity of a comforting bowl of cheese, all but ensure that chile con queso — or cheese dip, or whatever you want to call it — is a dish that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Whether it’s the classic Velveeta and Ro-Tel combo made at home in the microwave or a blend of melty cheeses and fresh chiles, chile con queso has firmly staked its place in American food culture as one of the best ways to kick off a meal.
Amy McCarthy is editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston.
Editor: Erin DeJesus