by Max Brantley
John Brummett wrote a column for election day that would be "evergreen," in newspaper terms. No point in guessing about election results.
Evergreen doesn't mean non-controversial.
It's about cheese dip. "Little Rock's essence," he calls it.
UPDATE: All the talk of cheese dip spurs a response from restaurateur Mark Abernathy (Juanita's, Blue Mesa, Loca Luna and Red Door are among his credits), who knows a thing or two about cheese dip. His remimiscences:
I really enjoyed the film In Queso Fever and I love the idea of a Cheese Dip Festival. I especially enjoyed your comments and thought you might appreciate a little more historical insight on the subject. I don’t have an email for Nick so I would appreciate if you would pass it on to him.
First of all, I wanted to share some thoughts about Nachos. Yes they were invented in Piedras Negras. They were created at the restaurant El Moderno. I lived in San Antonio for 13 years and worked throughout Mexico. I did restaurant design and menu consulting for the owners of El Moderno in 1982 - 1985. The owners name was Alfredo Del a Santos. Real authentic nachos then, and now, are corn tortilla triangles fried crisp in lard. Then each individual triangle is topped with a pickled jalapeno and shredded cheddar cheese. They can aften embellished with refried beans under the cheese and fresh guacamole and/or cooked meats on top.
The piles of processed “chips” topped with a melted cheese whiz like substance is, of course, an abomination created for speed and mass markets. Unfortunately, these sorry substitutes have become the standard. While they still serve the traditional real nachos in South Texas and Mexico, sadly they are almost impossible to find anywhere else.
I serve an upscale Southwest version at Red Door. An original Blue Mesa dish which has roasted chicken, goat cheese, fresh jalapenos, black beans and other goodies on a crisp blue corn tortilla. I still love the real thing and make them often at home.
It is truly and interesting phenomenon that cheese dip is so popular in Little Rock. Growing up here I, and my buddies, lived on Browning’s Cheese Dip. There were actually two main camps. Some folks swore by Browning’s and other preferred Mexico Chaquito‘s. Later Casa Bonita weighed in. Having no other frame of reference I thought the local Little Rock Mexican food was what real Mexican food taste like. It mirrored the bland Sonoran style Mexican food available in frozen dinners. It was not until I moved to San Antonio that the heavens parted and I was born again with the real stuff.
Cheese Dip has actually been around for a very long time. It was, and is still called Chili con Queso, and is usually a simple blend of chili con carne (chili with meat) and melted cheese. Locals just call it Con Queso. Of course it was not invented in North Little Rock but the unusual level of popularity is certainly unique to our area.
When I moved from Little Rock in 1972 to open the first big TGI Fridays in Dallas (the 4th one in the US, number three here in LR) I was surprised that cheese dip (con queso) was just another appetizer and not a “must have” item at Mexican restaurants. In fact most Mexican restaurants did not sell it. Plus if you could find it, it was only available in Mexican restaurants and not served outside that arena. I quickly realized that Cheese Dip mania was an Arkansas thing,
When I returned to Little Rock in 1985 I was on a mission to create the authentic Tex-Mex food I had become addicted to in San Antonio. You remember there were no Hispanics here at the time. I opened Juanita’s in Spring 1986. I served some of the first fajitas in Arkansas and we were the first Mexican restaurant to make our flour tortillas fresh by hand. We introduced many other firsts in terms of Mexican food. Fajitas, Spinach enchiladas, mushroom and other specialty quesadillas, rajas, tortilla soup. In my opinion, we transformed Arkansas Mexican food and set a new standard. It was a huge success with lines out the door for several years.
Upon returning I knew I needed a really good and special Cheese Dip. One of my partner in Juanita’s was Frank McGehee (Scott McGehee’s father). Frank was a real foodie and a talented cook. We worked for months on developing Juanita’s recipes. Frank had a friend named Clyde Baker who had developed a good recipe for salsa and cheese dip that he had served in recently closed WLR restaurant called John Barlycorn’s. We Clyde’s made recipe and loved it. After a little tweaking we had our cheese dip recipe and it was great.
Our Juanita’s version was a big departure from the standard Mexico Chiquito-Browning’s version. It was loaded with various peppers, fresh herbs and four different cheeses. People loved it and we sold hundreds of gallons a week.
I even have a small claim to fame inspired in part by the cheese dip craze. We got our corn tortilla triangle chips fresh from Rudy’s Tortarilla in Ft. Worth. I had the idea of making the tortillas in halves instead of quarters so when they would break you would still have a decent sized chip to dip with. I asked Rudy to make a new die to cut the chips. Now the ½ size has grown in popularity and can be found in many operations.
In 1989 we started work on Blue Mesa Grill a cutting edge restaurant featuring new Southwest Cuisine. We were the first restaurant in Arkansas to use chipotle chilis, pazole, black beans, blue corn tortillas and goat cheese. It was ahead of it’s time and wonderful. We wanted a different twist to our cheese dip so we decided to use white cheese instead of yellow (all cheese is basically white, the color is added). We used roasted green chilis and spinach. It was also a huge hit. To my knowledge we were the first to make white cheese dip. Certainly the first to make it in Arkansas. Although others might have been using it, I cannot remember seeing it anywhere else for several years. Now it’s everywhere around here.
Take care Max, thought you might enjoy this info. You were around and remember most of this.