Here is the thing. Chili's version mixes in beef chili. Now upon watching it come out piping hot in a skillet the first time I ordered it, I thought it might be queso flameado, also known as queso fundido. And yes, the skillet presentation and the beef in the Chili's version parallels the chorizo in a flameado, but that's really where the likeness stops. Flameado traditionally uses a thicker, stringier cheese such as Oaxaca or Monterey Jack, which makes it nearly impossible to scoop with all but the sturdiest of chips -- and the reason it’s typically served with tortillas instead. Chili's skillet queso, on the other hand, is smooth and easily accessible via the tortilla chips it is served with.
So if the skillet queso isn't Chili's take on flameado, logic dictates that it must be a version of chile con queso (con carne?!), right? Queso purists and other advocates for queso originalism like Rowe often cite the addition of beef as a strike against the queso at Chili's. My response to that, as a queso constructivist, is simple: original queso is delicious and its own thing. The skillet queso, on the other hand, is its cousin who’ll give you the satisfying meaty weight of the chili combined with the oozy, piping hot cheese. It’s as if every bite is from the top of a bowl of chili where the cheese has melted and combined with the meat, but creamier, and with the glorious addition of salty, oily, crispy tortilla chips.
Copycat recipes for the Chili’s version all over the world wide web suggest the use of Velveeta, milk, no bean chili, lime juice, and various spices such as cayenne, cumin, and chili powder. I made one of these recipes at home and was genuinely stunned by how similar it tasted to the real thing. But something critical was missing: Chili's salsa.
Like the chips, the restaurant chain’s salsa is thin, nearly watery in consistency, but with a clean, vegetable-forward flavor not overly masked by spices. Perhaps it's because I've grown up on it, but I find it almost fascinatingly addictive. And it provides just the right amount of acidic balance to the salt and cheese and meat bomb that arrives bubbling in a hot skillet.
Regardless of where you think Chili’s version falls on the queso spectrum (and in the end, I have to agree with Rowe. I don’t think it’s queso. It’s much closer to a delicious bowl of chili extensively mixed with cheese), you should still go to your local chain and order it. When that handle-free skillet arrives at your table, find the sturdiest tortilla chip in the basket -- the most underrated element on the menu. Chili’s chips are thin, usually served warm, and incredibly over-salted, which is exactly as tortilla chips should be. Drag it through the salty, meaty, cheesy mess so that it settles evenly across the fried tortilla’s surface area. Pause for a moment to breathe in the spicy, cheesy, beefy steam rising off the chip, then, with your spoon, ladle a bit of that salsa on top and shove it all in your mouth. If it’s your first time, you might pass out from an overwhelming sensation that you have touched the hand of God, if only for a moment. And if you do, don't be alarmed: Unlike Icarus, the closer you get to that molten hot yellow circle in front of you, the better.