Shared from the 2016-11-04 San Antonio Express eEdition

Arkansas’ ‘cheese dip’ latest attack on Texas

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Kin Man Hui / San Antonio Express-News

Despite a claim by some in Arkansas, there’s evidence chili con queso is a Texas creation.

Texas food

OK, world, before anybody tries to steal more Texas culinary glory, you are on notice that these Texas dishes are ours. We claim officially herewith:

Ballpark nachos: San Antonio-based Liberto’s created concession nachos, a spicy melted cheese sauce on top of tortilla chips and pickled jalapeño slices and introduced at a Texas Rangers game in Arlington. Can it get more Texan than that?

Breakfast tacos: Of course, residents of Northern Mexico and South Texas have been filling their flour tortillas with all kinds of foods, including traditional breakfast items, for generations. The first time the term “breakfast taco” showed up in print, they were called San Antonio breakfast tacos. We claim them San Antonian. We are open to sharing with other Texas cities who give credit where it’s due.

Chili: German immigrant William Gebhardt created a commercial chili powder in 1892 in New Braunfels, standardizing a blend of seasonings that generations of cooks had been using to stew meat for years. Of course, real chili is Texan. San Antonian. Just ask the San Antonio Chili Queens of the late 1800s.

Fajitas: Another creation of the Northern Mexico-South Texas region, it was called arrachera in Mexico and came up through the Rio Grande Valley into South Texas. Although a New York Times article incorrectly gave credit for popularizing fajitas to a hotel in Austin (gah!), the real credit goes to the restaurants of San Antonio and Ninfa’s in Houston. Yep. Again, all Texas.

Fritos: Created in San Antonio when ice cream salesman Elmer Doolin bought a recipe for corn chips in 1932. He altered the recipe slightly, patented the process and trademarked the name Fritos. Case closed.

Frito pie: Daisy Dean Doolin, mother of Elmer Doolin, invented this carnival favorite. A version of Frito pie was sold at a Woolworth’s in New Mexico for years, and some New Mexicans claim the dish. Dude, no.

Frozen margarita: The origins of the original margarita cocktail are disputed, but the frozen version that powers all kinds of happy hour happiness was created in 1971 by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez out of a repurposed soft-serve machine.

Nachos: Legend has it that they were created in Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, for some Army Air Forces officers’ wives. Even if true, we stole them first. So, boom! Texas again.

Puffy tacos: This gift from the culinary gods was created in San Antonio, but there’s a family connection among Ray’s, Henry’s and a place in Whittier, California, called Arturo’s. Whatever. We have the mascot. Does California? No. Therefore, it’s ours.

Edmund Tijerina

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Mike Sutter / San Antonio Express-News

Even if chile con queso wasn’t created in San Antonio, it’s at least a Texas creation that could have begun in Houston.

In the beginning, there was the food paradise of San Antonio. A glorious city that already held taco trucks or taquerias on almost every corner — well before political promises of such were made. A city where bean burgers, puffy tacos, chicken-fried steak, barbecue and breakfast tacos flowed like the waters from the Blue Hole that feeds the San Antonio River.

But as we all know, from the book of Genesis and poet John Milton to the anemone home in “Finding Nemo,” if there’s a paradise, there’s always somebody who wants to trample it, tear it or take it.

The latest Columbusizing interlopers come from Arkansas, a state most Texans haven’t thought much about since the old Southwest Conference dissolved 20 years ago, claiming via a story in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday to have created chile con queso. Yes, the gooey, fatty cholesterol bomb pronounced KAY-so that matches perfectly with tortilla chips and a frozen margarita. Only in Arkansas, it’s called “cheese dip.”

You’re probably thinking, What the what?, or words to that effect. But such nincompoopery is just the latest in a string of outsider states and cities that, clearly jealous of the cuisine of our great state, try to steal and appropriate our food culture.

Evidently high on green chile, New Mexico tried to take credit for Texas’ Frito Pie. Austin’s skinny-jeaned, man-bunned hipsters tried to take credit for San Antonio’s breakfast tacos. And Cincinnati’s ... um ... what are they known for? Ah, Cincinnatians all hopped up on “WKRP in Cincinnati” reruns tried calling that city’s sweet beef stew “chili.”

Fellow Texans, such aggression will not stand!

Once or twice over the years, we can laugh off these insults or take the imitation as flattery, but there comes a time when we must stand together and declare: Don’t mess with Texas food!

How did Arkansas’ queso delusion begin? In a 2009 documentary, “In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip,” lawyer and filmmaker Nick Rogers claimed that the first cheese dip might have been served in 1935 in North Little Rock at a restaurant called Mexico Chiquito.

The state’s tourism folks are even desperate enough to snag some food business that they have made a Cheese Dip Trail of 19 restaurants that visitors to Arkansas can trace to score plenty of indigestion along the way.

The original recipe for cheese dip, by the way, starts with a roux of flour and butter and adds American cheese, paprika, cumin, chili powder and milk to bring the consistency like a thick soup. A cheesy béchamel, if you will.

That’s so cute, Arkansas.

“Maybe Arkansas created that recipe. I wouldn’t call it chile con queso at all,” said Diana Barrios Treviño of the Los Barrios, Hacienda de Los Barrios and Viola’s Ventanas restaurants. She’s kind of an expert. “I’m sure it’s lovely, but ours is great.”

There’s plenty of evidence — admittedly, we’ve looked into enough only to throw some interstate shade — that the melty chili con queso was created in Texas, likely in San Antonio.

Yup, that’s right.

First, the first Tex-Mex restaurant ever, The Original in San Antonio, opened in 1899. And though the earliest menu we can find is from the 1940s, it includes chili con queso. Recipe and menu development being what it is, it seems likely it was created before the Arkansas version.

Even if it wasn’t created in San Antonio, it’s at least a Texas creation that could have begun in Houston. Venerable restaurateur and civil rights pioneer Felix Tijerina (no relation) opened the Mexican Inn in 1929 and then Felix Mexican Restaurant in 1937, which was famous for its neon-orange queso. Like the Arkansas cheese dip, his recipe calls for a mixture of flour and water with vegetable oil, onions, tomatoes, cayenne, American cheese and other spices. Could he have invented Tex-Mex queso sometime in the early 1930s? Absolutamente!

But stadium nachos were definitely created in San Antonio.

“We are the originators of the fast-food nacho,” said Tony Liberto, president and CEO of San Antonio-based snack food company Rico’s. “We didn’t invent melted cheese, but we are recognized as the originators of that concept.”

Their nachos of melted cheese on top of tortilla chips topped with jalapeños are the No. 4 biggest-selling concession item in the country, behind popcorn, soda and hot dogs, he noted.

And his thoughts about Arkansas cheese dip?

“I have never heard of it,” he said. “We sell products in more than 57 different countries. I don’t think Arkansas can claim that.”

In any event, chili con queso — or just queso — is not Mexican at all. The dish from Northern Mexico, called either queso fundido or queso flameado, stars melted asadero or queso Chihuahua, but the melted American cheese or Velveeta that’s mother’s milk to Texans is made in the U.S.A.

The difference between queso (pronounced correctly) and KAY-so can vex even native Texans, so at the Barrios restaurants, servers often have to ask guests whether they’re ordering the Mexican or American versions.

Food culture and state pride are really touchy subjects, so we reached out via Twitter to the “misguided” writer of the viral piece of vile in Eater.com that claimed Austin as the home of the breakfast taco with an offer to comment on the WSJ piece and redeem himself.

Alas, Matthew Sedacca, who now lives in New York, didn’t respond. But he’s now following us, so we know he got the message.

But Robbie Rodgers, the San Antonio restaurant insider who penned a viral manifesto in defense of San Antonio’s breakfast taco dominance after the Eater article appeared, was not so shy about sharing his views on the queso controversy.

“While there might have been a time when Arkansas in its Ozarkian isolation may have enjoyed reasonable doubt, we know Arkansas has internet access at this point, and to take that melted cheese and make it spicy, with chile even, and feign ignorance of the pre-eminence that is queso is nothing less than egregious.”

We agree, but queso-ra, sera. (Sorry if that was too cheesy.) etijerina@express-news.net Twitter: @etij

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