Main dish Tex-Mex

Soft cheese tacos

Soft cheese tacos with chile con queso | Homesick Texan

My friend was confused. She had heard me order a soft cheese taco plate, but when it arrived, she pointed at it and said, “What’s that? Those are enchiladas not tacos.”

To the uninitiated I could see why this would be a common assumption. While soft cheese tacos may appear to be enchiladas, as indeed they are rolled corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and smothered in sauce, in this case the sauce in question is not a chile gravy or a salsa verde, but instead chile con queso.

So why are called tacos and not enchiladas with queso? Well, it’s a matter of semantics. An enchilada is known as such because the tortillas have been dipped into a chile-based salsa. The Spanish verb enchilar, from which the word enchilada derives, means to season with chile pepper. While there are jalapeños in the queso, that sauce’s foundation is dairy not peppers, and so these rolled, stuffed, and sauced tortillas are not technically enchiladas.

No matter their quirky name, however, this addition to the Tex-Mex canon would probably still be unfamiliar to you if you’re not from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as their presence is largely concentrated to North Texas. Though if you’re a queso fan, this is clearly a shame as what’s not to enjoy about cheese, tortillas, and more cheese?

These tacos can appear on their own, usually with a side of rice and beans. They also are a popular item on combination platters, often slid onto the plate between a tamale and a beef enchilada. Either way you savor them, however, know that they are fine eating. To enjoy a soft cheese taco is to experience comfort that doesn’t require much thought beyond enjoying the natural mood enhancers brought by the dairy and peppers.

Soft cheese tacos with chile con queso | Homesick Texan

Now, curious about the taco’s history, I traced the earliest appearance of a recipe in a San Antonio cookbook published in 1937. These differed than the ones served today as these were smothered in a tomato salsa. But the presence of a softly cooked rolled corn tortillas stuffed with melted cheese, as opposed to say a folded tortilla or even a crispy tortilla, marked the arrival of something different.

From the 1940s through the 1950s, the soft cheese taco began appearing across the state of Texas, and if you were a fan, you could order one from Corpus Christi to Denton. While I don’t know if the versions on offer were served with tomato salsa, by the 1950s they would sometimes be advertised as a soft cheese taco with chile con queso, so I assume that was the prevailing style. Their heyday was brief, however, and by the 1960s they’d fallen off most menus and were concentrated mainly in North Texas.

Because they can be an elusive dish, if you crave them I recommend making them at home. They’re not difficult and if you’ve ever prepared enchiladas, the process is similar. First you make a chile con queso, then you load hot corn tortillas with shredded cheese, roll, bake until melted, then smother in sauce.

One anomaly of the soft cheese taco is that often the cheese stuffed into the tortilla is cheddar or Monterey Jack or a combination, though the queso is pure processed cheese. The contrast between the two, one sharp and one creamy, works well. For additional piquancy, I add diced onions to my filling and serve with tangy pickled jalapeño slices, though these embellishments are optional.

Soft cheese tacos with chile con queso | Homesick Texan

When I shared soft cheese tacos in my first book, a friend from Dallas that lives in New York was over the moon. “You don’t hear about these often,” she said. And unless you’re from that part of the state it’s true. I also included a version in my recent Queso book, for obvious reasons. But I thought it was time to place a recipe on the blog, as well. Soft cheese tacos are certainly deserving of all the love.

Soft cheese tacos with chile con queso | Homesick Texan
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Soft cheese tacos

Servings 4
Author Lisa Fain

Ingredients

For the chile con queso:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup diced yellow onion
  • 4 jalapeños, seeded and diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3/4 cup diced grape tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 pound American cheese, chopped or shredded
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne

For the soft cheese tacos:

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 12 ounces (3 cups) Colby Jack, shredded
  • 1/4 cup diced yellow onion (optional)
  • Sliced pickled jalapeños, for serving

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.


  2. To make the queso, in a 2-quart saucepan, heat the butter on medium-low. Add the onion and jalapeños and while occasionally stirring cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes and cook for 30 more seconds.


  3. Whisk together the cornstarch, milk, and water until well combined then pour into the pot. Bring to a simmer and while stirring, cook for a couple of minutes until it thickens, then add the American cheese. Turn the heat down to low and while stirring cook until the cheese has melted. Stir in the salt, cumin, cayenne then taste and adjust seasonings. Turn off the heat.


  4. For the soft cheese tacos, pour the oil into a 9x13 baking dish. To quickly warm the tortillas, place them in the baking dish (it’s okay if they overlap) and make sure they get covered in the oil. Place uncovered in the oven for 3 to 5 minutes or until soft and warm. Remove the tortillas from the baking pan and keep covered.


  5. To assemble the tacos, place a warm tortilla on a clean surface and add 1/4 cup of the shredded Colby Jack down the center of the tortilla then layer on top 1 teaspoon of the onions, if using. Roll the tortilla then place seamed side down in the baking dish.  Repeat with the remaining tortillas.


  6. Bake covered for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cheese in the tacos has melted. As they near the end of baking, reheat the queso on low, stirring occasionally. Once the cheese in the tacos has melted, remove from the oven and then pour the queso evenly over the tacos. Serve warm with sliced pickled jalapeños for garnishing on the side.


Recipe Notes

I like to buy my American cheese from the deli counter so I don't have to unwrap lots of individual slices. Kraft also offers an American cheese in a 1-pound package with unwrapped slices called Deli Deluxe, and it's very good, as well. Though if all you can find is wrapped American cheese that will work, too.

  1. Pamela Wood

    Yummy. I was going to make a skirt steak salad for Cinco de Mayo, but now I am conflicted. These look so good. How can cheese be bad? The only certainty is Hibiscus Margaritas.
    Thank you for the recipe.

    • Lisa Fain

      Pamela–Cheese is never bad! Love the idea of a hibiscus margarita, too!

  2. Julie Holman

    Dallas hangover food!

  3. This reminds me of the enchiladas my mom used to make when she had leftover chili to use up. I grew up in Mesquite, Texas. Living large in Louisiana now :/. The processed cheese would go inside the tortillas along with some onion, and the outside would be smothered in either cheddar or jack (or both) plus a little chili. Thanks for the memory! I know this isnt exactly the same but that’s what I thought of and am now salivating over when I read this post ;). Happy cinco de mayo!

    • Lisa Fain

      Rhonda–Your mom’s chili enchiladas sound fantastic! And happy Cinco de Mayo to you, too!

  4. Ted Arbuckle

    Can’t wait to make this. It brings back great memories of my past visits to El Chico’s and Tupilabamba.
    Ted Arbuckle

  5. Paul McConahy

    WalMart and Aldo carry processed cheese in 2# packages as do most grocery stores in the DFW area. This is probably so in many other areas as well. Love your books also!

  6. Yum! I’m in Shreveport, LA, close enough to DFW that I’ve always enjoyed cheese tacos. Grew up eating them at El Chico. Must make some at home now! Have to tell you that my friend in Oregon is the one who introduced me to this blog a few years ago. Funny that someone far away directed me to this place where I find familiar recipes!

    • Lisa Fain

      Voce–That is funny! So glad your friend made the introduction and that you enjoy the recipes!

  7. Pamela Wood

    Lisa, I am presently living in Plumbing Hell — no kitchen sink or dishwasher going on over a week. Any chance I can make this ahead and not bake and mix all at once?

    • Lisa Fain

      Pamela–You could roll the tacos and also make the queso ahead of time. And while you could mix the two together but I’m not sure how it the queso would reheat already on the tacos as it might make the dish soggy. I haven’t experimented with that yet. So if you can, I’d store the queso separately and to prepare I’d heat up the tacos, heat up the queso, and proceed as the recipe’s written. Both should keep refrigerated for several days.

  8. Pamela Wood

    I have just made the queso and it is cooling. I wasn’t clear in my post; What I meant to say is make each separately and reheat tacos and then cover with the warmed queso and bake. The queso is bueno; I did use a mix of white and yellow American cheese from the large Texas grocery store. By the way I know Cinco de Mayo isn’t a real holiday, but how bad for Mexico and Texas to give us one more excuse to drink tequila and eat queso? Also the Hibiscus margarita mix is chilling in the refrigerator. Such a lovely color.
    Thank you so much for replying to my posts. I enjoy this site so very much.

    • Lisa Fain

      Hi Pam–You don’t need to bake the reheated tacos after covering with the warmed queso. They’re good to serve right then!

  9. Pamela Wood

    Yea a step I can skip.

  10. Now you’ve got me wanting to head down the street to El Fenix for a Saltillo Plate, with both a cheese enchilada and a soft cheese taco, plus rice and refried beans. Alas, they closed 24 minutes ago! I guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow, and since I have to go to Pantego, maybe I’ll have lunch at El Chico instead.

    • Lisa Fain

      Janet–There’s nothing like a classic combination plate! Enjoy your lunch!

  11. Kathleen Harrington

    I’d completely forgotten about El Chico’s soft cheese tacos, a favorite of mine since childhood trips to Dallas/Ft. Worth. When I moved to south Louisiana in the 70s, I was thrilled to find an El Chico’s here, too. Then the chain folded or moved out and others moved in and I thought no more about those luscious little packages of cheesy goodness for upwards of 20 years. Thanks for the recipe and the memories!

    • Lisa Fain

      Kathleen–That’s too bad there’s no longer an El Chico close to you but now you can make them at home!

  12. ML Porter

    I just bought the ingredients to make this from the recipe in your cookbook. That version uses chicken broth instead of milk. Is the milk preferable?

    Looking forward to a lil bit of Dallas here in the southeast!

    • Lisa Fain

      ML–They’re both delicious, though the milk is a bit more creamy.

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