One of Texas’ national dishes, chile con queso is as beloved as it is diverse.
Lisa Fain, the James Beard Award-winning creator of the blog Homesick Texan, spent weeks traveling in the El Paso, Texas, and Southern New Mexico region and made her way all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas, driving and dipping tortilla chips into bowls of melted cheese dip, all in the name of research for Queso! (Ten Speed Press, 2017), a book that traces the deep history of the humble processed cheese appetizer that no respectable Tex-Mex joint would be without.
Along with more than 50 cheesy, saucy recipes, Fain traces chile con queso from its roots in the 1800s as a pourable sauce to its evolution today, from an 1887 recipe for chiles poblano to modern, hybrid spinoffs like Indian Queso With Jalapeño Chutney and Greek Queso. Tex-Mex classics endure. Chili Parlor Queso is made with you-guessed-it and topped with pickled jalapeños. Bean Dip Queso has a spoonful of homemade bean dip in the middle. There are vegan versions too.
“Every place I traveled, whenever I told people I was writing a book about chile con queso, they would light up and share a story with me about the role it played in their lives,” Fain says. “While I knew queso was beloved, I was surprised to see just how ubiquitous this adoration could be. Even vegans went nuts when I discussed queso with them, and so I was pleased that I could find nondairy recipes everyone could enjoy.” One of the simplest go-to party foods in Texas, (and one that always pairs well with a margarita made with fresh-squeezed lime juice), queso, as its known to so many of us, in all its forms, is a good thing.
Chipotle Beef Fajita Queso
(Makes 6 – 8 servings)
3 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 pound skirt steak
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup diced yellow onion
2 jalapeños, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup half-and-half
1 cup water
1 pound yellow American cheese, shredded
Guacamole, for topping
Pico de Gallo, for topping
Tortilla Chips, for serving
Place the chipotles, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, black pepper, and cumin in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth to make a marinade. Reserve 1 tablespoon for the queso.
Place the steak in a bowl and add the rest of the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 1 – 2 hours, turning the steak a couple of times. (Don’t marinate longer than 2 hours or the texture will begin to get mushy.)
While the steak is marinating, in a medium saucepan, warm the butter with the reserved 1 tablespoon marinade over medium-low heat. Add the onion and jalapeños and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Whisk together the cornstarch, half-and-half, 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. Add salt to taste. Cover and turn off the heat.
After the steak has marinated, position a rack about 4 inches from the upper heating element and place a large, broiler-safe skillet on the rack. Preheat the broiler and skillet for 10 minutes.
With a paper towel, wipe the marinade from the steak, pat the steak dry, and cut it in half so it will fit in the skillet. Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and lay the steak in the skillet. Broil the steak, turning once, until nicely charred on both sides, 6 – 8 minutes for medium-rare or 10 – 12 minutes for medium. Transfer the steak to a cutting board, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, reheat the queso over low heat, stirring occasionally.
Slice the steak against the grain, then cut the slices into ½-inch cubes. Transfer the queso to a serving bowl, a small slow cooker, or a chafing dish over a flame. Top the queso with the steak and spoon on guacamole and pico de gallo. Serve warm with tortilla chips.
Recipe edited and excerpted with permission from Queso!: Regional Recipes for the World's Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip by Lisa Fain (Ten Speed Press, 2017). Purchase the book at Amazon.com. Photography: Courtesy Ten Speed Press. Subscribe to the forthcoming monthly Taste of the West e-newsletter below.