Long before there was the comforting, gooey chile con queso that all Tex-Mex fans know and love today, there was its equally comforting and gooey Mexican ancestor: queso fundido. Unlike the Velveeta-and-Ro-Tel version familiar to most Texas Monthly readers, this dish isn’t quick to prepare, and it’s made with real cheese. Exactly which kind or kinds can vary widely, but usually, queso fundido is made with a thick bed of fresh, molten, milky queso asadero, queso Chihuahua, Oaxacan quesillo, or even Manchego. And while chile con queso is usually only lightly garnished with pico de gallo or maybe taco meat, queso fundido often comes capped with mushrooms, chorizo, or grilled peppers. Notably, it’s traditionally served with tortillas instead of tortilla chips. Lately, I’ve noticed queso fundido popping up on more and more Texas restaurant menus.
Let’s just agree at the outset that queso in all its myriad forms is a good thing. I love knowing that when I visit family for Thanksgiving, there’ll be a slow cooker brimming with chile con queso on the back patio, ready to be ladled into paper bowls. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and kids all go hunting for the queso container practically before their coats are off, craving a quick hit of serotonin and salt. Queso fundido is different: it takes time to prepare and has complex flavors worth savoring (although, truth be told, once you get a taste of it, you might gobble it up as quickly as chile con queso). Cooking it requires more attention. It also necessitates a deep knowledge of cheese, including its flavors and melting properties, and an instinct for pairing it with the right toppings. Queso fundido is the progenitor and the predecessor to chile con queso. Maybe it’s better to think of chile con queso as the young Tex-Mex analogue of the older dish. Both are great, but queso fundido (that’s Spanish for “melted” or “molten” cheese) is enjoying increasing popularity across the state. That makes me melt with happiness.
Indeed, what American doesn’t like cheese? Its universal appeal helps explain why birria de res is such a massive trend. And during the rough years of the pandemic, we’ve all turned to comfort food, which offers a momentary return to childhood. “As kids, we had mozzarella string cheese; now we have queso fundido,” says Andrew Savoie, co-owner and executive chef of Resident Taqueria in Dallas. “It fills your belly and makes you feel warm inside. When it’s melted and gooey, that’s the best thing ever.” There is power in cheese. Savioe points out that the neutral cheeses used in queso fundido lend themselves to being garnished in many different ways. Resident Taqueria’s standard version is quesillo topped with basic button or cremini mushrooms, served with a side of fluffy, house-made flour tortillas. Savioe argues that mushrooms are just as comforting as cheese; though some readers might raise an eyebrow at that, when I tasted his recipe, I agreed with him. Savioe is not afraid to get extravagant with mushrooms, either. Once, he shaved truffles and Parmigiano-Reggiano over a skillet of the melted piece of heaven.
You can eat queso fundido by spooning it into a tortilla or using the tortilla as a dipper. Salsa gets spooned on top too. There’s really no wrong way to consume it—queso fundido is perfect no matter what. Really, what more do you need?
Iliana de la Vega, co-owner and executive chef of El Naranjo in Austin, serves queso fundido piled with your choice of house-made Oaxacan-style chorizo or sautéed mushrooms. If you want to get really fancy, you can also add huitlacoche. But try not to overthink it. “Who doesn’t love gooey, scrumptious cheese that is soft and warm inside a tortilla with some great salsa?” says de la Vega, who recommends trying more than one topping at a time.
Queso fundido is a common Mexican dish, but as far as I can tell, it didn’t make the historical print record in Texas until a November 1978 edition of the Austin American-Statesman mistakenly called queso fundido of “Italian origin.” Despite this error, early reviews of the appetizer were favorable: in 1980 the El Paso Times pronounced a Dallas queso fundido “sensational,” and in 1982 the Austin American-Statesman called a version with chiles, raisins, and cashews “a delightful combination of tastes.”
In Mexico as well as in Texas, there are numerous regional varieties of queso fundido. In Jalisco, one might find the cheese seasoned with oregano. In other areas, it comes with roasted strips of poblanos or other chiles; diced epazote, an aromatic herb; or whole beans. The name of the dish can vary too. Confusingly for some Texans, queso fundido is sometimes called chile con queso in the northern border state of Chihuahua, according to the Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Another variation is queso flameado, which requires the addition of alcohol, usually rum, that is briefly lit on fire to melt the cheese quickly.
That’s what Hugo Ortega, co-owner and executive chef of H-Town Restaurant Group, offers at his newest restaurant, Urbe Street Foods of Mexico. There, Ortega serves his queso flameado with clever touches that appeal to Texan palates. What arrives at the table is a milky queso Chihuahua base, charred at the edges, with a tangle of brisket, chilaca chiles, onions, and mushrooms. Flour tortillas accompany the appetizer.
Ortega has fond childhood memories of eating queso fundido as a boy in Oaxaca. His mother and grandmother made the two cheeses used in the dish: quesillo and queso fresco. Queso fundido was a rare treat, made only when the goats or cows had a surplus of milk during the rainy season. “The family would tell the people in the small town, and they would come over and buy some,” Ortega says. “We always looked forward to it!”
Texans are looking forward to queso fundido more and more, and Ortega goes so far as to categorize queso fundido as its own food group. We can’t disagree with that.
Urbe Street Foods of Mexico
1101 Uptown Park Boulevard, Suite 12, Houston
Hours: Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.