The Seafood Issue

Seafood Con 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 further 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 cheeses 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. 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 a balanced, harmonious suspension; that means a smooth, flowing river of cheese. This is especially critical for queso, where it 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 winner Chef Frank Brigtsen, the celebrated chef-owner of New Orleans’ renowned 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 Paul 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 sautéed onion and bell pepper, seasonings of garlic, jalapeño, 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 40 years ago. Today, they’re joined by former restaurateur Stephen Stumpf and serial entrepreneur Darren Walker of Zoeys Queso. After owning and operating a burrito restaurant 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 Zoeys Queso was a clean label product without gums, thickeners or stabilizers — still delivering tons of flavor — and with glorious “dip-ability” and a solid shelf life for stores. Unlike other retail quesos, Zoeys contains over 70% cheese, which drives its taste appeal. Not unlike the American restaurant scene, Zoeys began with a plain (mild) queso, with just a bit of jalapeño 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 jalapeño with red and orange habaneros gave rise to Zoeys Three Pepper Spicy 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. You want fun foods on your table for visitors. There may be no better fun, snacky party 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?


Makes 6 cups

Chef’s Note: This is a great sauce for nachos, and even better when you have peeled crawfish tails — or you can use shrimp.


  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups diced yellow onion
  • 1 cup diced green bell pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2½ teaspoons salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried whole-leaf oregano
  • 1½ teaspoons finely chopped fresh jalapeño pepper
  • 1½ teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1½ cups finely chopped canned roasted green chiles
  • ½ cup diced roasted red peppers (or diced pimentos)
  • 1¼ cups milk
  • ¾ cup cream
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose white flour
  • 2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup crumbled queso fresco


Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell pepper and bay leaf. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and clear.

Reduce heat to low. Add the salt, white pepper, cayenne, jalapeño, garlic, cumin and oregano. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1-2 minutes.

Add the roasted green chiles and diced roasted red peppers (or pimentos). Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes.

Add the milk and cream, and bring the mixture to a boil while you make a roux:

In a small skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of butter. Slowly whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Add the finished roux to the boiling sauce mixture and whisk until fully blended. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 3-4 minutes.

Add the grated Cheddar cheese and queso fresco. Whisk until the cheese melts into the sauce. Remove from heat.