Rejoice, for the Tex-Mex staple chile con queso, the cheesy nectar of the gods, the dip that every chip aspires to be smothered in, is being tested in Chipotle’s corporate kitchens, and may soon be available on a menu near you.
But queso, as devoted Texans will tell you, is a very particular thing. It’s not the same as queso fundido, the Mexican dish of flambéed, melted cheese eaten in soft tortillas. What makes it good, Texans will tell you, is that it’s often made with processed ingredients: Traditionally, Velveeta, for its smooth and melty texture, and a can of Rotel tomatoes and chiles. Some will not accept it any other way.
But Chipotle, the flag-bearer of “Food with Integrity” and enforcer of strict standards in ingredient sourcing, can’t use Velveeta. So the brand has set out to build a more natural, less-processed queso. There is only one place in the world where regular customers can try it right now: at Chipotle Next, the restaurant chain’s experimental public-facing test kitchen, located in New York on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 13th Street.
Incidentally, one of the world’s experts on queso — Lisa Fain, who blogs as the Homesick Texan — lives in New York, too. The Tex-Mex food writer has devoted her most recent book, which comes out in September (aptly called “Queso!“), entirely to it.
When she heard that Chipotle might add queso to its menu, “I was pretty excited, actually. Most of the other Tex-Mex fast food places do queso. When I was doing research for the book, I was constantly seeing people say, ‘Why doesn’t Chipotle do queso?’” she said. “I think it’s a good move for them from a business standpoint. It’s just a matter of how it tastes.”
How does it taste? Presented with a large serving of chips and queso ($5.25), she examined it warily, dipped a chip in, took a bite, and considered it.
“It’s a little grainy, and the chips are too salty, I think,” she said. “Something’s really salty. The spice is nice. The flavor’s not bad. The texture’s not good.”
Yikes. So, what’s the deal with the texture? Chipotle culinary program manager Jaimi St. John says the reason the texture doesn’t match the beloved Velveeta queso is because processed cheese has stabilizers and other artificial ingredients to smooth it out. Right now Chipotle is making its queso using aged cheddar, along with the brand’s red and green salsas, pickled jalapenos, adobo seasoning and sofrito. It also uses tapioca starch and cornstarch.
“The graininess is something that comes with a real good quality cheese without the processed additives. You don’t get a queso at Moe’s or Qdoba without additives,” St. John said. “The texture of it to me — this is real. Real ingredients versus velvety rubber.”
But you can make a smooth queso with real cheese, Fain points out. She’s got several recipes for it in her book. It’s what she had to do when she first moved to New York, and there was no Velveeta or Rotel to be found. One way would be to mix in cream cheese, or to make a bechamel and fold in cheese. Or, Chipotle could make its queso El Paso style, which uses white melting cheeses.
She tried it a few minutes later, when it was slightly congealed. The final verdict? “It’s better cold.”
Chipotle has heard people’s feedback about the queso. But right now, it’s not too focused on changing it. The purpose of Chipotle Next “is to see how it affects the crew, operations. So we’re not technically gathering a bunch of consumer insights,” St. John said. “It’s really about, can our crew pull it off? And if they can do it here, it’s a bit more feasible rolling it out to other restaurants.”
That said, she thinks they’re going to sub in a younger cheddar at some point. On Aug. 1, queso will roll out in two test markets: Los Angeles and Denver. Denver will also lose chorizo as a menu item at that time.
And queso isn’t the only new menu item that’s being tested in New York. There’s also a new avocado-citrus salad dressing, a dessert, and a frozen margarita (some Chipotle locations with liquor licenses offer non-frozen margaritas).
The margarita ($6.20) didn’t impress Fain much, either.
“Needs salt,” she said. “I don’t like it, it’s too sweet … It doesn’t taste like it’s made with real lime juice. It just tastes like it’s made with Crystal Light or something.”
Theoretically, if a person were to ask for lime and salt packets, they could MacGyver it into a better margarita. Or just order beer, instead.
But the salad was a different story.
“Mmm, I like that,” Fain said of the avocado dressing, which is made by emulsifying the brand’s guacamole with red wine vinegar. “It’s tangy, it’s creamy, it’s got some nice acidity.” She compared it to the green sauce she’d often find at Houston-area Mexican restaurants.
The buñuelos ($1.95) were another hit. The Latin-American fried dessert can take several forms, but at Chipotle, it looks a little like giant Cinnamon Toast Crunch: cinnamon coated crispy squares that get dipped in a spicy chocolate sauce.
“That’s so good,” she said, and went back for more.
Eat a whole bagful good?
“Yes. It’s a little bit salty and it’s spicy, and I love the cinnamon and chocolate.”
Just as investors are hoping queso can fix Chipotle after its recent foodborne illness scare, Chipotle can fix its queso. Fain thinks a Colby Jack, or Monterey Jack, could do the trick. But will Texans accept it?
“Not as long as it remains this grainy,” she said. “They can show the world that you can make awesome queso with real cheese, but they need to work on the texture.”
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