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