Appetizer Tex-Mex

Felix queso

Felix queso | Homesick Texan

So, first things first. I never had the famed Felix queso at its original home, a Southeast Texas regional chain of restaurants owned and operated by the late Tex-Mex pioneer Felix Tijerina that first opened in 1937. I’m not sure why my family never ate there but perhaps it’s because we’re Dallas transplants, and the people who are mad about Felix were usually born and bred in the Houston area.

That said, for years I’ve heard nothing but both praise and derision for this queso. The latter is due mainly to its peculiar appearance (some poorly lit photos make it look like unappealingly oily and inedible), while the former is due to its unique flavor and texture. And for those that love Felix queso, they really, really, really love it. It is so adored, in fact, that when the last standing Felix restaurant on Westheimer closed in 2008, people placed gallon-sized orders of the queso to stockpile in their freezers. These fans couldn’t bear life without their beloved dip.

Fortunately, another Houston restaurant named El Patio bought the rights to the Felix recipes and you can now get many of the old favorites there, such as the cheese enchiladas, the crispy tacos, and of course, said queso. Since no book about queso would be complete without a recipe for this Houston icon, last year when I was doing my queso tour across Texas while doing my research, I made a stop there one afternoon. I was thrilled to finally eat Felix queso at last.

When I got to the the restaurant it was around three in the afternoon, which is in-between meals so the room was quiet. I sat down and the waitress brought me a menu but without looking at it I told her that I was there for the Felix queso. She beamed and said, “Such a favorite!” I admitted to her that I’d never had it and was a bit dubious because of its bizarre appearance, but she shook her head and said it was excellent and that she ate it all the time. I placed my order then snacked on the crisp, salty chips and refreshing tomato salsa as I waited.

A few minutes later, she brought me my queso and it was indeed as odd looking in person as it was in photos. Perhaps not as ugly as some of the images I had seen, but it sat solid in the bowl like a whipped putty with a moat of red oil beginning to form on the queso’s outer edges. I grabbed a chip and made the first dip.

Felix queso | Homesick Texan

By the heft of the queso, I had assumed it would be hard to dip into, but the queso was yielding and my chip easily slid into the bowl. I took my chip, now loaded with cheese, and took a bite. Now, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the queso was rich with the earthy notes of ancho chile, cumin, and paprika, and there was a hint sweetness from tomatoes and onions, too. It was the flavor profile of classic Tex-Mex. As for the texture, it was surprisingly fluffy and while it was certainly thick it wasn’t heavy but instead pillow soft. To be honest, Felix queso is kind of hard to describe but I happily kept eating it and now understood why it was so beloved. There is no other queso quite like it.

After taking notes, when I returned home I attempted to make my own batch. After trying several recipes that have appeared over the years in various Houston publications that were all different, and after reading an interview with Felix’s wife where she revealed that ancho chile played a key role, I came up with my own amalgamation, which not only appears in my book but I’m also sharing with you today.

Purists may scoff that it’s not entirely accurate, but the slick of chile-spiced oil pooled on a thick bed of melted cheese is present and deliciously unique. And if you never had a chance to visit Felix when it was open or don’t have plans to be in Houston soon to go to El Patio, I suggest trying this unique queso. It’s not only a Tex-Mex classic and a piece of Texas culinary history, but it’s also just fun to eat.

The process to make the queso is a bit unusual, since after you cook down the tomatoes and aromatics with the spices you then stir in a paste made from water and flour. It’s not a classic roux, but this paste does give the queso its distinct texture. There’s a lot of stirring involved, but it does go quickly and once you scoop the queso into a bowl and pass the tortilla chips, I imagine that the queso will disappear quickly, too. Felix queso may be curious but it’s also wonderful. And while I’m late to the party, I’m so glad that I finally arrived.

Felix queso



Ingredients:
1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
1⁄4 cup diced yellow onion
3⁄4 cup diced grape tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄4 cup water
8 ounces yellow American cheese, shredded
Tortilla chips, for serving

Instructions:
In a medium saucepan, warm the oil over low heat. Add the onion, tomatoes, garlic, chili powder, paprika, salt, and cayenne and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have almost completely disintegrated, 6 to 8 minutes.

Whisk together the flour and the water to make a paste, then addit to the pan. Stir a few times until the paste is well combined with the vegetables. Stirring constantly, add the cheese, which should combine quickly. As the cheese melts, the queso will become thick and almost like putty. Don’t be alarmed! This is the proper texture as it is not a creamy queso. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if you like.

Transfer the queso to a serving bowl, a small slow cooker, or a chafing dish over a flame. Serve immediately with tortilla chips.

Yield:
4-6 servings

Notes:
One of the characteristics of this queso is that the oil separates from the cheese. The amounts of oil used in the various recipes were all over the place but I found ¼ cup provided enough without it being overly greasy. Though if you like it super greasy feel free to add 2 tablespoons more oil.

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  1. If by any chance there are leftovers, how do you suggest reheating?

    • Lisa Fain

      Anne–Yes, it can be reheated! You can put it in a pot over low (maybe add a touch more oil) and stir while heating, or you can microwave it. Though I have to admit, it’s not bad cold!

  2. My mom was friends with Janie Tijerina as a result of their membership in either the Women’s Club of Houston or Women of Rotary (for the wives of Rotary Club members) and my oldest sister while a freshman in high school went on a couple of dates with Felix Jr. (arranged by the mamas). Their restaurant was our first exposure to TexMex although picky eater that I was at the age of 7, I only ate a fried chicken leg & the queso. I wonder now if the chicken was made as a favor to friends of the owner & the beginning of kids meals. I know that was the beginning of my love affair with all things queso and ultimately TexMex. Apparently, the nut didn’t fall far from the tree, as my son followed the same pattern as a child and since we are Texpats living in North Georgia made it his mission to experience every taqueria he comes across in his travels. Thanks for bringing back a childhood memory and happy travels!

    • Lisa Fain

      TX2GA–What a wonderful story and memory. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Lisa, you made a couple of mentions of ancho chile, I would assume “chili powder” in the ingredient list would be ancho chile powder?

    • Lisa Fain

      Derek–Ancho chile powder is the foundation for commercial chili powde and in the early days of Tex-Mex queso, chili powder was a common addition so I went with that. Back then, people probably didn’t have pure-ground ancho chile powder available, but a bottle of chili powder, such as Gebhardt’s, would have been sold in most Texas stores.

  4. I grew up in Houston in the 50’s. My parents knew Felix Tijerina and his lovely wife. Their queso was the best and yours is similar. To be honest, back then we couldn’t get grape tomatoes so very ripe tomatoes were used. The texture is the same but his was not as spicy..good job though.

    • Lisa Fain

      PD–Ripe tomatoes are always better, they’re just so hard to find except during their brief season but at least grape/cherry tomatoes are delicious and available year round! Glad you liked it!

  5. Just had some last Friday, at El Patio. I grew up, eating Felix’s. Every birthday, both or one of my parents would take me there for lunch and dinner ! I never got tired of their food. There has never been another “Tex-Mex restaurant, that can compare. My parents had their rehearsal dinner there in 1951. When their last restaurant closed on Westheimer, it was like losing a family member. El Patio definitely nailed the queso !

    • Lisa Fain

      Anon–El Patio serving the old recipes has been such a gift to Felix fans! It’s good to know they nailed the queso. And how wonderful that your parents had their rehearsal dinner there. The restaurant was a part of your family.

  6. One of the churches (in the appearance list) your Mom’s?

  7. Your narrative refers to “ancho” chili powder; even that the Felix’s wife said it played a key role. However, your recipe calls for “chili powder”. Do you not consider “ancho” chili powder crucial?

    • Lisa Fain

      Shirley–Ground ancho chile powder is the foundation for most commercial chili powders

  8. Loved reading the article, ate at Felix’s several times with family and friends and I remember that queso very well….we are going to be at St. Mary’s Nov. 14 to see you there with one or two cookbooks…..

    • Lisa Fain

      Schoomaven–Their queso was pretty unforgettable! And I look forward to seeing you at St. Mary’s on the 14th!

  9. Just bought tickets for the queso tasting in San Antonio on November 11th. Looking forward to seeing you there.

  10. Cheese brands vary so please tell the brand of cheese you used. Thank you.

    • Lisa Fain

      Anon–For American cheese, I like Andrew & Everett, Applegate Naturals, Horizon Organics, Trader Joe’s, and Kraft Deli Deluxe.

  11. I just made and it’s wonderful. I’m so glad to find a tastier way to make queso. My husband will be thrilled..he loves this stuff,always orders it.

  12. I just made it and I was quite pleasantly surprised. It is definitely addictive. It seems that any good American style cheese works well. I was really surprised at the sort of paste consistency but it dips and tastes great!

  13. Holy wow, Lisa! Another winner!

  14. xiutecuhtli

    I’m going to express a dissenting opinion. I made the Felix queso and followed your recipe as written (I have learned better than to start modifying the FIRST time round), but … I couldn’t bring myself to like it. It was a lumpy, oily mess.

    • Lisa Fain

      Xiutecuhtli–I’m so sorry you didn’t like it, though I will admit that it’s definitely an acquired taste!

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