Like many of the world’s most marvelous inventions, cheese was likely an accidental discovery. Some lucky goat herder thousands of years ago was attempting to prolong the life of milk and in the process, made it curd. Oh what a happy day that must have been! Unbeknownst to the fortunate countrywoman, her revelation would lead to the creation of hundreds of cheese varieties, thousands of dishes derived from them, and millions of “cheese-pull” videos on TikTok and Instagram.
Cheese, to those who are lactose tolerant, is easily one of the finest foodstuffs this earth has to offer. Extremely versatile, lovers of the curd can enjoy it during any meal, from breakfast to dessert, and in any form. One creamy creation, out of the hundreds of thousands (dare I say millions?) which currently exist, is a Tex-Mex phenom called queso.
Queso, or chile con queso, is a simple, yet dreamy combination of melted cheeses, cream and chiles, one of the most perfect dips for your chip. Typically, Velveeta (which is not really a cheese, just a cheese-like product) has been the main ingredient, but many of our local restaurants step up their game adding real cheeses, or replacing the processed cheese product altogether, in their ooey-gooey, can’t-stop-eating-it quesos.
Chef Brett Jones, owner and operator of Barracuda Taco Stand on Tchoupitoulas Street (now with a second location in Algiers Point!), tries to make his queso as close to the classic Velveeta version as possible using real chihuahua and sharp cheddar cheeses, their own in-house hot sauce made with spicy pequin chiles, and garlic. When they first opened several years ago, Barracuda gave diners the option of enjoying their fabulous queso with flour tortilla chips or fresh-out-of-the-fryer chicharrones, but those poppin pork skins have disappeared of late. Though some may be disappointed by their disappearance, the takeaway is that their killer queso remains.
Just down the street from Barracuda, El Cucuy is one of the city’s newer taco stands named after the Mexican boogeyman. With lots of outdoor seating and colorful murals, this Mexican street food-inspired spot is choice for cocktails under the stars, the perfect pairing for a bowl of hot cheese. In their version, a Mexican hatch chile sofrito spices a bechamel made with three different cheeses (both hard and soft) and cream. The finished queso is then drizzled with arbol/guajillo chile oil and served with warm corn tortilla chips.
Over in the Broadmoor neighborhood, Chef Lindsay McLellan and her husband Mario are slinging out all kinds of cheesy creations at their Mexican restaurant El Pavo Real, including an incredible queso. Roasted poblano peppers are blended with several cheeses (cheddar, chihuahua, queso blanca), caramelized onions, and fresh corn, and served with flour tortilla chips. Feel free to add chorizo or fresh, local crab if it’s in season, but you better be hungry or share with the table or you may not be able to eat anything else.
Juan’s Flying Burrito, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, has become a New Orleans institution, a local restaurant chain inspired by the Mission Burrito joints popular in the San Francisco Bay Area. Self-touted as the “word’s first Creole Taqueria,” Juan’s offers an eclectic menu with dishes ranging from their signature Flying Burrito stuffed with grilled steak, Gulf shrimp and chicken to banh mi tacos with pickled daikon radish. Surprisingly enough, they keep their queso pretty simple with a creamy white, processed cheese and hatch chile combo, though they do like to top it off with sliced Cajun Chef pickled jalapeños.
Finally, the Uptown stand dubbed Secret Birria Tacos is also a fine purveyor of cheesy bliss, among other things. As the name clearly states, this particular restaurant offers the popular Mexican dish quesabirria which has swept the nation – crispy, cheesy, flour tortilla tacos are filled with a savory goat or beef stew meat (ie. birria) and served with a spicy, meaty tomato “au jus” for dipping. Along with those incredible tacos, Secret Birria also offers items like birria ramen, flautas, a “birriarito” and, of course, queso. Made with American white cheese and mozzarella, this particular cheese dip is topped with salsa negra (roasted tomatoes and chile peppers) and served with crispy, Cajun-seasoned cracklins.
*Article was originally published in the July 2022 issue of Where Y’at Magazine
**Lead image is the queso at El Pavo Real