Amuse-bouche

Where to get your queso fix, plus Queso! the cook­book

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Tantri Wija For The New Mex­i­can

ITis Su­per Bowl sea­son, the time when true Amer­i­cans watch a sport only Amer­i­cans (and some­times Cana­di­ans) play while eat­ing an all-Amer­i­can snack named af­ter the Mex­i­can word for “cheese.” The phe­nom­e­non known as “queso” or “chile con queso” is Tex-Mex cui­sine’s gift to the ap­pe­tizer side of the menu, a po­tent amal­ga­ma­tion of gooey cheese (of­ten Velveeta, but some­times some­thing bet­ter) and chile, chili, or salsa. It’s im­por­tant to note that this is not haute cui­sine — though hot melted or­ange cheese is a per­fectly rea­son­able guilty plea­sure that even the snob­bi­est food­ies only pre­tend to be above.

But all bar que­sos are not cre­ated equal. There are places with ar­guably the best television sit­u­a­tions, but op­ti­mal view­ing does not nec­es­sar­ily cor­re­late with op­ti­mal queso qual­ity. There’s noth­ing worse than sit­ting down to watch the finest sports teams in mod­ern his­tory play the big­gest sports event of the year only to find that your an­tic­i­pated bowl of melted dairy dreams is ane­mic, or chalky, or chunky, or oth­er­wise dis­ap­point­ing. Great queso should be smooth and thick, just pourable enough to get into the bowl, with a rich creamy fla­vor and a spicy kick from the mixed-in chiles. Queso should come out of the kitchen quickly, as it has a ten­dency to form an un­ap­pe­tiz­ing skin on top as it cools. Chips-to-cheese ra­tio is also im­por­tant — a gi­ant bowl of chips served with a mere pud­dle of queso is dispir­it­ing. A gen­er­ous lake of cheese with too few chips, how­ever, seems like a prank, mean­ing you have to flag the waiter down for more — a dif­fi­cult feat to man­age in a bar on Su­per Bowl Sun­day.

Blue Corn Café and Brew­ery (two lo­ca­tions: 4056 Cer­ril­los Road on the South­side; 133 W. Wa­ter St. down­town) serves its satisfyingly salted, tangy queso — which is mixed with spicy-ish salsa and is dense enough that you can stand chips up in it — in sin­gle­serv­ing cups or gen­er­ous group-size bowls ($8.95). A bowl is enough queso to get sev­eral strap­ping foot­ball fans through at least half of the multi-hour en­deavor of watch­ing the Pa­tri­ots prob­a­bly win the big game. Ide­ally, though, this queso would come out a bit hot­ter, be­cause as it cools, it con­geals. Both lo­ca­tions of­fer the NFL Sun­day Ticket, so there are plenty of tele­vi­sions with the game on re­gard­less of where you sit.

The queso at Del Charro (101 W. Alameda St.) is $7, sim­i­lar in taste and tex­ture to Blue Corn’s, and comes topped with a mound of very spicy fresh green chile and a side of re­fresh­ing green tomatillo salsa, both of which are fan­tas­tic when mixed into the cheese. The menu lists the cheeses as a mix of pep­per-jack, ched­dar, and Gouda — this may or may not have been the ac­tual com­po­si­tion (the queso was a lit­tle more liq­uid and or­ange than any of those cheeses put to­gether), but it was cer­tainly tangy. One down­side: Not all seats at Del Charro are cre­ated equal if you want to see the TVs, so get there early.

Sec­ond Street Brew­ery (1814 Sec­ond St. and 1607 Paseo de Per­alta — the Ru­fina Tap­room does not have queso) changes it up a bit by stir­ring their own beer into their “Cream Stout Queso Sauce,” re­sult­ing in a slightly brown­ish, more mus­tard-colored queso ($6) topped with salsa, which lent a no­tice­able yeasty pun­gency to the fla­vor. In case chips aren’t your thing, you can also get the queso with their fresh-baked gi­ant soft pret­zels ($4). For the game, grab a seat at the bar at ei­ther lo­ca­tion — the restau­rant seat­ing may be sit­u­ated too low to see well.

Iron­i­cally, the best queso in town comes from two places where you can­not ac­tu­ally watch the game. At Vi­o­let Crown Cin­ema (1606 Al­caldesa St.), the “Crown Queso” ($6.50) is served with a gen­er­ous heap of gua­camole, crum­bled queso fresco, salsa, fresh cilantro, and hot sauce on top. The cheese tastes fresh, the tex­ture is silky smooth and sat­is­fy­ing, and all those add-ins make for in­ter­est­ing mouth­fuls. Bonus points to Vi­o­let Crown, too, for serv­ing it with the per­fect amount of chips — im­por­tant to have when you’re stuck in a movie and can’t ask a waiter for more. At Paloma (401 S. Guadalupe St.), the finer-din­ing Mex­i­can mecca, the queso ($8) is creamy, sharp, and clearly made with real queso Oax­aca (a Mex­i­can cheese sim­i­lar to Mon­terey Jack in fla­vor) and green chile. The menu in­cludes op­tional mix-ins like chorizo, oys­ter mushrooms, or short rib,

which we tried for an ad­di­tional $4, which turned it into din­ner, and was well worth it. There are, how­ever, no tele­vi­sions, so only come here if you’re in it for all of the cheese and none of the foot­ball. The wo­ven bas­ket of hearty corn chips that came with it was in a class by it­self chip-wise, which made it OK that we had to ask the waiter for an­other serv­ing half­way through.

But wait — is bar queso too low­brow for you? If what you want is au­then­tic queso fun­dido, you can get that at Los Potril­los at 1947 Cer­ril­los Road, where $8.75 af­fords you a dish of pure melted cheese with your mix-in of choice: We opted for spicy, pleas­antly oily chorizo. This comes with fresh, hot corn tor­tillas, and is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence from any bar queso in town. The melted cheese is heavy and spread­able with a knife, mak­ing each bite into a mini-que­sadilla. Los Potril­los does have sev­eral gi­ant TVs, though, so this might be the per­fect se­cret Su­per Bowl-view­ing spot. Bonus points for the fish­bowl­sized mar­gar­i­tas. Fi­nally, for a more high-end, retro cheese-in­hal­ing ex­pe­ri­ence (with sports), head to Rio Chama Steak­house (414 Old Santa Fe Trail), where you can or­der Swiss fon­due ($20), made with six cheeses, white wine, and am­ber ale, and served with a bas­ket of soft bread cubes, green ap­ple slices, and steamed veg­eta­bles for dip­ping. Ad­di­tional serv­ings of dip­pable items are $3 each, how­ever, and you will prob­a­bly need more, mak­ing this a pricier op­tion. Be­cause fon­due is served in a bra­zier with a can­dle or other heat­ing el­e­ment un­der­neath it, it doesn’t form a skin on top, though it might burn a bit on the bot­tom if you don’t give it the oc­ca­sional stir. Rio Chama is also built for watch­ing sports, with mul­ti­ple large tele­vi­sions placed where you can see them from ev­ery cushy leather-up­hol­stered seat (this is prob­a­bly the most com­fort­able place to im­bibe sports in town). Here, you can sit back with your snacks and watch Tom Brady, a man who prob­a­bly has not eaten cheese in years, defy both time and the Ea­gles to win his 10 mil­lionth di­a­mond-stud­ded ring.

Queso fun­dido and mar­garita, top, at Los Potril­los

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