Food & Drink

Is Chili’s Skillet Queso Actually... Queso?

chili's queso
Photo: Courtesy of Chili's; Illustration: Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

In Greek mythology, the Olympian gods consumed ambrosia as a way to stay immortal. And while modern medical doctors might disagree with the theory that melted processed cheese mixed with ground beef chili will grant you eternal life, Chili's skillet queso certainly feels deity-worthy.

Queso is having its moment. It's been having its moment. In 2017, Chipotle famously added queso to its menu "using only natural ingredients," only to watch the social media hordes rip it apart to the point that they were forced to change their recipe altogether. What’s more, the American culinary revolution over the last decade has also caused a flowering of upscale Tex-Mex-style restaurants outside of Texas preaching the good word of queso, from places like Bar Ama in Los Angeles to Javelina in New York City. At WesBurger in San Francisco, Texas native Wes Rowe serves it alongside his famous burgers, because “queso is unquestionably the heart and soul of Texas food. You’ve got to have it.” Back in the Lone Star State, queso doesn't need to have a moment because it’s been there for over 120 years.

According to author Lisa Fain’s book, Queso! Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip, the first queso recipe appeared in a magazine in 1896, and the term "chile con queso" first featured in a San Antonio women’s organization cookbook in the early 1920s. The proliferation of processed cheese (a.k.a. Kraft Velveeta) in the 20s, coupled with the invention of Ro-Tel, canned tomatoes and green chiles, twenty years later, created a marriage of convenience and long shelf life bounding those two products together in holy queso matrimony.

Yet Chili's, which started in Dallas in 1975, featured no queso on the original menu, or menus I could find online from the 1980s. On the Chili's website the skillet queso section reads "Your chip's favorite dip for over 25 years." I'm not a mathematician, but that seems to suggest that at some point in the 1990s, Chili's had a queso awakening. I wondered: Why did it take a Texas-based chain so long to add a Texas favorite into the mix? I reached out to Chili’s, and though they didn’t answer directly, a spokesperson responded with some fun facts: They added “Tostada Chips and Queso” in 1991, and they sell over four million Skillet Quesos a year, which puts in the top three best selling appetizers. 

And while that is all well and good that Americans eat a ton of Skillet Queso, I realized if I was going to answer the deeper questions, I’d need to investigate on my own. But aside from why it took so long to add their skillet queso to the mix, there was a much more important question at hand: Is Chili’s skillet queso even… queso? “No,” said Rowe, when I asked him. “And the fact that you’re even asking is making me a little nervous.”

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.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End is out now from Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.