Appetizer Tex-Mex

Chili parlor queso

Chili parlor queso | Homesick Texan

When I started researching the history of chile con queso for my new book, periodicals and books revealed it had been a popular dish at the Johnson White House in the 1960s. That made sense, as President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird were both Texans who knew queso was a must at any gathering.

Most guests were receptive to the dish, but the White House’s French head chef René Verdon hated it. In fact, he loathed chile con queso so much that he derisively referred to it as “chile con-crete.” When I first heard what he said, I laughed as I could imagine a person with a French accent and a sneer looking at a slow cooker burbling with queso and uttering that phrase. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that clearly the chef had not tasted the queso because if he had I know he would have changed his mind.

Indeed, when I first moved to New York and would make queso for my friends, the Texans would of course make a beeline to the pot but the non-Texans would make faces and say, “What’s that?” When I’d explain to them what it was and how it was made, they’d be even more snobby about the dish. But I always encouraged them to take one bite. And after they dipped that first tortilla chip into the pot they’d marvel over how creamy and delicious queso can be.

Chili parlor queso | Homesick Texan

The Johnson family was proud of their state’s culinary heritage and Mrs. Johnson often shared with the press the recipes that came from the kitchen of the family’s personal chef, Zephyr Wright. Most were classics that would look familiar to any Texan, but strangely enough, the first queso recipe she gave called for aged cheddar.

At this time, queso was made with a processed cheese base, and I assume that’s what they served at the White House, too. Though when I made the first-published Johnson queso recipe it turned into a lumpen mess, as there were no starches or a roux to bind the sauce, which you need when melting real cheese. I reckoned that the usage of cheddar over the more common processed cheese was an attempt to mollify her in-house critic.

Chili parlor queso | Homesick Texan

Another recipe she shared a few years later, however, did call for melting brick processed cheese (usually sold under the name Velveeta) and canned tomatoes and green chiles (usually sold under the name Ro-Tel). A queso classic. To make it even better, a generous portion of Texas red chili—that beloved stew of beef and red chile peppers—was also added to the creamy base. As chili is the state dish of Texas and some may argue that queso is a close runner-up, this dip was a much better introduction to Texas party fare than the previous recipe Mrs. Johnson had shared. This was the real deal.

For my book, I took that recipe and adapted it a bit. The chili in the original was the famous Johnson recipe for Pedernales chili, which has a ground-beef base and is seasoned with chili powder. For expediency, I stuck with the ground beef, but to get a richer ancho chile flavor, I made a puree out of whole chiles versus ground powder. And while I typically eschew tomatoes in my chili, for authenticity to the original I did retain the ones called for but split the can between the chili and the queso, which worked out well.

People have asked me what is my favorite recipe from the book, and I always reply that I don’t have one. This is true, as there are so many variations of chile con queso that there is always something new to discover. I love them all. But I’m sharing this one with you today mainly because October to me is perfect chili weather. And what goes better with chili than queso? This is fall Texan comfort in a bowl served with a side of chips.

Now, a few more words about QUESO! The past week has been fantastic and I wanted to thank y’all for all the kind things you’ve said about the book. It’s been super fun seeing people’s photos on social media of the dishes they’ve made. Please continue to share! Also, if you’ve enjoyed the book please consider leaving a review on Amazon, GoodReads, your blog, or other review sites. This is also very helpful! I am going to be having book events in Texas in early November, and I’d love to see you! Here are the dates with details. Thank you again, and I’m so grateful for all your support and kind words. Queso forever!

Chili parlor queso | Homesick Texan
5 from 1 vote

Chili parlor queso

Servings 8
Author Lisa Fain


Ingredients for the chili:

  • 2 ounces dried ancho chiles
  • 1 teaspoon bacon grease or vegetable oil
  • 1⁄4 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1⁄2 (10-ounce) can diced tomatoes with green chiles, with juices
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Pinch ground allspice Pinch of cayenne
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 1 1⁄2 cups water
  • 1 pound ground beef, preferably coarsely ground
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper

Ingredients for the queso:

  • 1 pound brick processed cheese, cubed
  • 1⁄2 (10-ounce) can diced tomatoes with green chiles, with juices
  • 1⁄4 cup pickled jalapeños
  • 1⁄4 cup diced yellow onion, for serving
  • Tortilla chips, for serving


  1. In a dry skillet heated on high, toast the ancho chiles on each side for about 10 seconds or just until they start to puff. Fill the skillet with enough water to cover. Leave the heat on until the water begins to boil and then turn off the heat and let the chiles soak until soft, about 30 minutes. Once hydrated, discard the soaking water, rinse the chiles well, then place into a blender.

  2. To make the chili, in a medium saucepan, warm the bacon grease over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds longer. Turn off the heat. Transfer the onion and garlic to a blender with the chiles. Add the tomatoes, oregano, cumin, allspice, cayenne, and water. Blend until smooth.

  3. Add the ground beef to the pan and season it with the salt and black pepper. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes. Pour in the chile puree. Turn the heat to high, bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened and fragrant. If the chili gets too dry, add more water. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if you like.

  4. To make the queso, in another medium saucepan, combine the cheese and tomatoes. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted.

  5. Transfer the queso to a serving bowl, a slow cooker, or a chafing dish over a flame. Spoon the chili into the center of the queso and top with the pickled jalapeños and onion. Serve warm with tortilla chips.

  1. Mary Beth

    When I showed your book to my “hates to cook” sister, she shrugged and said "big deal, how many ways can you mix Velveeta and Rotel?" She thumbed through it,and I heard “hmmmm&” and she asked to borrow it for the next family potluck. Success! Love the book myself, btw. Great job!

  2. I have to say that I first tasted the Velveta/Rotel version at a party in 1970, and it’s been a family fave ever since. I have been known to fancy it up a little with a handful of grated sharp cheddar, and some sauteed onions, but never have enjoyed meats added. Some folks add a block of cream cheese during the melt or swirl in sour cream or guacamole before serving. When it’s just the 2 of us at home, I’m more likely to do a small plate of queso fundido con rajas with warm corn tortillas, but nothing disappears faster in a crowd than a warmed pot of the traditional version. We have no use whatsoever for the white stuff served here in the mid-Atlantic

  3. My introduction to chili con queso was around 1960, made by an El Paso native. It took forever to make, and she did not do it often because of the lack of availability of the correct cheeses. She did try several substitutions, which were also very good, but not the original.

    My Amarillo native Dad declared that her queso was indeed the real deal. (This from a man who never ate a tamale as good as those from his childhood sold by street vendors.) It was white, with lots of green chiles and just a hint of heat.

    The next time we found chili con queso on a par with that introductory batch was what Mercado Juarez served around 1980 in Dallas. Oh, so yummy.

    Looking forward to your latest book. Oh, to not now have issues with dairy!

  4. I was so excited to get your book last week as a belated birthday gift! I made, and loved, the Austin diner-style queso earlier this week, and enjoyed it with your San Antonio-style flour tortillas last night. Looking forward to cooking my way through the rest of the book!

  5. Lisa Fain

    Jen–Thank you for the kind words! The Austin-style diner queso is so wonderful and I love that you paired with with San Antonio-style tortillas. Two of my favorite cities!

  6. Anonymous

    Is there a processed brick cheese you recommend over Velveeta? I really hate the taste of Velveeta… What do the Tex Mex restaurants use?

  7. jen123

    I love the new book! Fantastic job!

  8. Lisa Fain

    Anon–If you're in Texas, I recommend HEB's Easy Melt cheese. Restaurants often use Land O' Lakes Extra Melt or Golden Velvet, but they don't sell it to consumers, so you'll need a tax ID to get it wholesale. Sometimes it's on Amazon, but it's expensive–about $100.

  9. Lisa Fain

    Jen–Thank you! It was super fun to write!

  10. Rachel Darcy

    We don't have Velveeta cheese in the UK. Or, anything similar that I know of. But, we do have excellent different strengths cheddar.

  11. Anonymous

    Thanks, Lisa. I've read about the EasyMelt ! I'm a homesick Texan like you so I've tried the HEB one but live in NYC. The family that comes to visit most often live in Dallas and I don't think they have an HEB! But next time the Houson family comes I think I'll be asking for some EasyMelt!!

  12. DivaDog

    My copy of your book is on it's way via Amazon and I can't wait! In 1960 we followed our father's work and left our home in Texas for Illinois. My parents grew up in East Texas but moved to Iraan and started their family there. We made the trip back to Troup at least twice a year and I can still remember my parents bringing home a case of Rotel (you couldn't get in the Midwest until the last 10 years or so) and Wolf brand chili which they used for chili dogs. Wonderful memories!

  13. Lisa Fain

    Anon–My book has lots of recipes that don't use Velveeta. There are many ways to queso bliss!

  14. Lisa Fain

    DivaDog–Great story! I'm very familiar with the need to bring favorite things back from Texas with me. Thank you for sharing and have fun with the cookbook!

  15. Thanks Lisa!
    Love the story! Visited the Johnson Ranch this summer, it's so beautiful!

  16. Lisa C

    I am part of two small groups at my church. In each group we share a meal once a month in someone's home – potluck style. I ordered your book last week and declared that I will begin at the beginning and every monthly small group meal I'll take a different queso recipe. Can't wait to get started!

  17. Lisa Fain

    Rachel–If you use cheddar as a base, you'll need to make a roux and add liquid. My all-natural queso recipe can help you with that! I'd use young cheddar because aged can be crumbly. Gouda, Muenster, and Monterey Jack (if you can get that) work, too!

  18. Fort Worth would love to see you, too!

  19. Lisa Fain

    Lulu–What a fun trip–the ranch is indeed gorgeous!

  20. Lisa Fain

    Lisa C.–What a fun idea! Love this!

  21. Lisa Fain

    Paul–Duly noted!

  22. I asked for your book for my birthday! Also I live in Norway now and my mom brought 2 big blocks of velveeta and 2 cans of Rotel to me when she visited in September. Oh yeah and Fritos so I could make frito pie. I'm going to attempt this recipe if I can find the chiles.

  23. Lisa Fain

    Erica–If Amazon UK and/or Mexgrocer UK ship to Norway, they should have the chiles.

  24. I’ve heard two of your interviews on NPR and am so excited to hear about your new book.I am giving your book as a christmas gift and wanted to know what type of cooking dish would work well with making queso? A fondue dish, pan/pot, etc? I found cute serving bowls but wanted to make the gift as queso-ey as possible. Thanks!

    • Lisa Fain

      Dottie–A fondue pot is fun for serving, as is a small slow cooker. Cute bowls are also a good gift.

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