Quest for queso

Can Chipotle’s Velveeta-free chile cheese dip compete?

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Chile con queso — we just call it “queso” — may be the perfect global comfort food. Everybody gets partial credit for the comforting combo of cheese and chilies ranging from Mennonites in Mexico to the states of Arkansas, Texas and Chihuahua, who derived it from Swiss fondue and French mornay sauce.

Queso has become an obligatory menu item at almost every Tex-Mex and Southwestern eatery in Colorado, plus brewpubs, bars and sports venues.

Up until now, there was one notable holdout to queso domination: the Denver-born fast casual giant Chipotle Mexican Grill. Where Taco Bell was a place that assembled pre-made ingredients into meals, Chipotle built its brand on freshly chopped ingredients cooked in each location. That stereotypical queso with the garish Cheetos hue and processed texture didn’t seem to fit in.

So when Chipotle recently announced it was adding queso to its menus nationwide, cries of protest were heard from the chain’s devotees. Some viewed the arrival of queso as a sign the company was caving in to corporate interests and messing with the sacred tradition of Chipotle’s San Francisco-style burritos. After tasting it, others claimed that it wasn’t “authentic queso.” That may be because it is not made with Velveeta and Ro-Tel canned tomatoes with chilies.

Surprisingly, queso is not on the diet my primary care physician recommended, so I wasn’t able to research and taste Boulder’s Top 10 chile cheese dips. However, I did sneak into several Chipotle stores to sample the controversial queso made, they say, with “real cheese, jalapenos, tomatillos and spices.”

The first thing you notice is that Chipotle’s queso is white, not bright orange, with flecks of red. The not-too-salty queso clings properly to corn chips without having that slippery processed mouthfeel. The cheese flavor is prominent along with great roasted chile flavor and heat, although it’s not too fiery for general consumption.

I’ve always liked Chipotle’s steak burritos and bowls, but the final product is essentially served warm. The shredded cheese is mainly just texture unless you took the burrito home to microwave. Queso adds an element to the steak burrito that hasn’t been there before. The hot cheese sauce pulls the flavors of meat, beans and rice together in a way crema and salsa can’t.

Finally, you have to try the hack of combining Chipotle’s queso with the corn salsa. It is a beautiful thing.

I found that the queso varied a little from Chipotle to Chipotle — a little thicker here, a little spicier there. I found that strangely reassuring. I’ll trade a little food science consistency for real ingredients, flavors and cooks.

With the festive holiday party and sports season ahead, you should learn to conquer queso. My recipe is very forgiving and adjusts to the ingredients you have on hand.

Chile con queso

2 tablespoons butter

3 Pueblo or Hatch green chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped (Substitute canned roasted green chilies)

1 jalapeño chile, seeded and chopped

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1⁄2 medium white onion, finely diced

2 to 3 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups warm milk (whole milk makes it creamier)

4 cups (approx.) grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

2 cups (approx.) shredded queso asadero (white Mexican cheese)

1 cup canned diced tomatoes

Garnish: Chopped fresh cilantro, pickled jalapeños

Melt butter in a saucepan and add chilies, garlic and onion. Cook over low heat for about five minutes. Sprinkle on the flour, blend it in and cook for about three minutes. Be careful not to scorch it. Slowly mix in the warm milk and stir constantly for a few minutes until the sauce starts to thicken. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with more milk or warm water. Turn the heat down and very slowly stir in the cheese a little at a time until it is completely melted and blended. This process works out better if you do not use bagged, pre-shredded cheese. Add tomatoes and stir. Taste, and add salt only if you must.

Note: Options include adding serrano or chipotle (smoked jalapeño) chilies. Some recipes blend in sour cream or crema before serving.

For your Halloween menu

Canadian doughnut maker Tim Horton’s is serving a Buffalo Latte made with “Buffalo sauce flavor” and topped with Buffalo-seasoned thick steamed milk, but only in Buffalo. … Yakiimo Dayori, a new, warm, roasted sweet potato drink, is available now from vending machines at train stations across East Japan. … A Fluffy Mascarpone Cheese Mousse and Mixed Berry Grape Smoothie is available at McDonald’s in Japan. … The hot new Chinese beverage is Kinfone Tea King — that’s oolong iced tea topped with frothy, salted cheese.

Local food news

Happy 30th birthday to Boulder’s iconic West End Tavern, opened by the late Steve “Beaver” Goren and Marc Minion in 1987, long before that end of Pearl was anything resembling cool. Early on I had a culinary epiphany on the Tavern’s rooftop terrace when I tasted a bowl of pork green chile stew that was broth-based, not flour thickened, with lots of roasted peppers and bay leaves. … Sommelier Paige Bodin is celebrating 30 years of giving wise wine advice at the Flagstaff House. … A fire recently damaged the kitchen at Niwot’s Colterra Food & Wine. No reopening date has been set. … Learn to make your own horseradish and fire cider Oct. 29 at Broomfield’s Crescent Grange. They provide the root. You bring kitchen tools, vinegar, honey and pint jars. crescentgrange.org. … The Colorado Artisan Cheese Festival Oct. 29 in Pueblo features Colorado cheesemakers including MouCo, James Ranch, Philpott Goat Dairy and Laz Ewe 2 Bar plus samples of other local foods. coloradocheesefest.com … Fall workshops at The Farmette in Lyons include Bitters & Cocktails (Nov. 11). lyonsfarmette.com.

Words to chew on

“You undercook everything in this country! When I ask for meat well done in a restaurant, I’m treated like I’m a barbarian.” —Anthony Hopkins

John Lehndorff is the former Dining Critic of the Rocky Mountain News. He hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org).