MOLTEN CHEESE, PLEASE
Enjoying the simplicity of a Mexican skillet dish.
WRITTEN BY AMBER K. STOTT
PHOTOS BY RAOUL ORTEGA
Queso fundido is a party trick. Just say the words, and hands go up with a pick me sense of urgency. After all, it’s melted cheese. This modest Mexican food tugs on our most primal instincts. Grab a spoon, scoop generously into a handmade corn tortilla, and garner instant smiles.
This dish traditionally cooks over an open flame in cast iron skillets or clay pots. The constant ingredient is cheese. The variables are few. Most, though not all, contain chorizo and can be purchased in the Greater Sacramento area for eight or nine dollars. Many include grilled onions and peppers. Some add beans, avocado, or even mezcal.
Chef Kurt Spataro, co-owner of Paragary Restaurant Group and Centro Cocina Mexicana in Sacramento, known for his expertise on Mexican cuisine, provides basic instructions for making queso fundido successfully. First, he says, keep it simple. The star of this dish is in the name: queso, Spanish for cheese. His recipe calls for a lot of it.
“Don’t skimp on the quality,” Spataro says.
The rest of the ingredients only support the molten (fundido) hero. Thus, queso fundido is ideal for sharing. A small appetizer portion easily will please four people.
In his cookbook, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, chef Rick Bayless says the traditional queso fundido uses a mild, Cheddar-like Chihuahua cheese called asadero. His recipes substitute mozzarella. He recommends using a chewy cheese, rather than one that’s runny or creamy. Yet, many restaurant chefs break from tradition here.
In Sacramento restaurants, you’ll find varying levels of chewiness to dip-like creaminess. Those at Sacramento’s Centro Cocina Mexicana and El Rey are the chewiest. Meanwhile, Zocalo (in Roseville and Midtown Sacramento) and Sacramento’s new La Cosecha by Mayahuel offer slightly wetter, though definitely not runny, consistencies, by combining both firm and softer cheeses.
Spataro suggests another must: Like the cheese, superior add-ins are essential.
“When things are so simple like that, each ingredient is so important,” Spataro says.
At Centro, caramelized onions, roasted poblano pepper strips, and grilled flank steak are stirred into Monterey Jack cheese and topped with a unique morita pepper salsa. Spataro believes the table sauce elevates this basic dish to interesting.
Chef Adam Pechal, who opened La Cosecha in downtown Sacramento this spring, says he wants extra flavor profiles in his queso fundido. His contains mezcal that’s been infused with charred garlic cloves.
One recipe served at Zocalo includes sautéed mushrooms, while El Rey’s features roasted red bell peppers.
Spataro notes that homemade corn tortillas complete the ideal dish.
Importantly, he adds, “It’s hard to go wrong. It’s a good, simple, easy thing for people to do at home. It’s a crowd pleaser.”
Raise your hand if you agree!
Amber K. Stott is founder and chief food genius of the nonprofit Food Literacy Center, inspiring children to eat their veggies. She’s a food writer and has been named a Food Revolution Hero by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, a Food Hero by Food Tank, and a TEDx Sacramento Changemaker Fellow.
(courtesy of Adam Pechal, chef, La Cosecha by Mayahuel in Sacramento. Serves 4 to 6)
8 ounces chorizo
¼ cup green chiles, diced
¼ cup white onion, diced
2 ounces mezcal
1 pound queso Oaxaca, Monterey Jack, or your favorite melty cheese, grated
Put a cast-iron skillet or high-temperature ceramic dish on your grill or burner and heat 5 to 10 minutes. Add chorizo and brown. Add onions and cook until soft, then add green chiles and cook until most moisture is gone and mixture begins to sizzle. Deglaze with mezcal. If working with open flame, be careful, as it may flambé. Spread chorizo mixture in even layer across pan and cover with grated cheese. Place pan over medium heat and wait for cheese to melt. Serve with chips or warm tortillas and your favorite salsa.
Centro Cocina Mexicana
2730 J St., Sacramento • 916-442-2552 • Paragarys.com/centro-cocina-mexicana-landing
El Rey on K
723 K St., Sacramento • 916-400-4170 • Elreyonk.com
La Cosecha by Mayahuel
917 9th St., Sacramento • 916-970-5655 • Experiencemayahuel.com/la-cosecha
1801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento • 916-441-0303 • Zocalosacramento.com