New Orleans Does Queso

I’ve written before about the assumed biases that I, as a “cheese person,” am often saddled with. People immediately think that knowing and writing and caring about cheese means I only like “fancy” (read: expensive/imported/rarified) cheeses. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Cheese first spoke to my nerdy, academic side when I realized that it was a living cultural artifact. Each cheese is the product of a specific time, place, geography and unique set of constraints. Each cheese has an origin story and when you learn why a cheese is the way it is—why it tastes a certain way, or is made a certain way, you gain a special window into a past world. I love all cheese because each is a singular portal. Also, I love tasty and delicious things and many tasty, delicious things might also be called junk food rather than refined food. 

This crossroads of cultural artifact and compulsive snackability brings me to the literal melting pot that is queso. The word queso simply means cheese in Spanish, and then there are numerous Hispanic cheeses that have queso in their name, such as queso fresco (fresh cheese). But to Americans, queso is a molten river of seasoned melted cheese for dipping, often flavored with pepper, tomato and spices. We have Texas to thank for queso, where this cheese dip originated in the early 20th century. Tex Mex queso was likely a best attempt at reproducing the Mexican dish queso fundido, or melted/molten cheese. Queso fundido is made with a variety of cheeses not often found outside of Mexico. All are mild, neutral-tasting cow milk cheeses with relatively high moisture and excellent meltability—cheeses like Asadero, Mennonite, or Chihuahua seasoned with onion and tomato salsa. Americans didn’t have these cheeses, and so used available ingredients to emulate queso fundido. Here, we were inadvertently helped by the technological innovations that created processed cheese. 

Standard issue Tex Mex queso uses a block of Velveeta (invented in 1918) melted and blended with a can of RO-TEL diced tomatoes and green chiles. Velveeta has the advantage of being non-refrigerated and shelf stable, meaning it could be easily kept on hand. It was quickly joined by American Cheese (as in, Kraft American Cheese) as a popular base for queso. Both Velveeta and American Cheese share sodium phosphate as an ingredient which is key to great queso. This emulsifying agent ensures that when heated the disparate elements of cheese (fat, protein and water) stay together. Without an emulsifier, heat causes fat to separate, protein to break down and moisture to be expelled; with an emulsifier everything remains in balanced, harmonious suspension which means a smooth, flowing river of cheese. This is especially critical as queso is used first and foremost as a dip. It can be an amazing ingredient (more on that later) but its default purpose in life is to be dipped into. The longer queso can stay warm, gooey, and chip-coating, the better a dip it is.

While aficionados might argue that without the seasoning queso isn’t truly queso most Mexican and Tex Mex restaurants that serve queso default to a “plain” (not spicy) version or at least offer it as an option. Across Texas and now, across the United States, this neutral base of melted, processed cheese has become an inspiring palette for all kinds of cultural improvisations, from kimchi queso to Indian-spiced queso with fermented chilies and cardamom to a toss-up between white queso and yellow (actually, orange) queso. 

This broad appeal is no surprise to James Beard award-winning Chef Frank Brigtsen, the celebrated chef-owner of New Orleans’ Top Ten restaurant Brigtsen’s. Chef Brigtsen helped introduce New Orleanians to Mexican food at the helm of the late Chef Paul Prudhomme’s seminal restaurant K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. As Frank explains it, when Prudhomme opened K-Paul’s in the late ‘70s he was still the Executive Chef at Commander’s Palace, and K-Paul was where he could put a more personal imprint on the menu. Originally, K-Paul’s was a lunch spot, and the Wednesday lunch special was always Mexican. Prudhomme had fallen in love with Mexican and Tex Mex food during his extensive travels in New Mexico and Colorado, and he showcased that love at his restaurant.

As Frank says, “It was his [Prudhomme’s] love that introduced me. We were doing an expansion of what we knew of creole cuisine and culture. The beauty of queso is that it’s multicultural. All the immigrants over the past 300 years have left their imprint on this fusion cuisine. Post-Katrina, New Orleans’ population of Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and Central America increased dramatically. It’s only natural that queso would show up in our grocery stores and restaurants. The beauty of food is in its diversity.”

Frank would know. He continues to contribute to the evolution of what queso can be with a homemade version of what he calls “queso sauce.” His version, which you can try at home (see sidebar), includes sauteed onion and bell pepper, seasonings of garlic, jalapeno, cumin and roasted green chiles, a roux-thickened béchamel, grated sharp cheddar, and the Hispanic cheese queso fresco. Frank describes this last addition as “little explosions of creaminess.” Texture, he reminds me, is so important in food.

Is this queso? Queso fundido? Cheese sauce? It takes inspiration from all, combining them to create something uniquely delicious and primed for a Louisiana spin on enchiladas or nachos—Frank assures me it’s ideally served with crawfish tails in the mix. 

Chefs Prudhomme and Brigtsen began exploring Cajun/Creole/Mexican mashups forty years ago. Today, they’re joined by former restauranteur Steve Stumpf and serial entrepreneur Darren Walker of Zoe’s Queso. After owning and operating an Izzo’s Burrito franchise, Steve saw an opportunity to make better quality queso available to the supermarket-going public. While his restaurant made fresh salsas, guacamole and queso every day, the only stuff he could find for his home fridge was loaded with additives and preservatives. An LSU Dairy Science grant provided an opportunity for him to collaborate on the research and development of a new kind of queso.

The goal for Zoe’s Queso was a clean label product without gums, thickeners or stabilizers, still delivering tons of flavor, glorious dip-ability, and a solid shelf life for stores. Unlike other retail quesos, Zoe’s contains over 70% cheese which drives its taste appeal. Not unlike the American restaurant scene, Zoe’s began with a plain (mild) queso, with just a bit of jalapeno and tomato. It wasn’t long before customers clamored for a spicier version, and a fortuitous meeting led Steve to the Louisiana Pepper Exchange. Their intense blend of jalapeno and red and orange habaneros gave rise to Zoe’s 3 Pepper Blend Queso. 

Although queso has become a ubiquitous staple of Mexican restaurants nationwide, I wondered what would lead someone to make queso in New Orleans. Isn’t queso still, at its heart, Texas’s thing? Frank, Steve and Darren all had the same nonplussed response (like, duh lady, you may have lived here a while but you still don’t get it): New Orleans is a fun city. A party city. Queso is a party food. Frank reminded me Christmas has just ended. Carnival season has already started. You want fun foods on your table for visitors. Snacks before a parade. Snacks at a parade. Snacks after a parade. You incorporate these things into daily life. There may be no better fun, party, snacky food than queso. Whether you make your own or you open a container, microwave it for a minute and stir. The next question is, what are you going to dip in it?