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The Velveeta Underground (Apologies to Lou Reed)

Anthony Bourdain made some snarky comments about the cheesiness of Tex-Mex while speaking in Houston last year. Strange that Bourdain is comfortable condemning our home food while he flies around the world preaching tolerance for all manner of foreign fare. (I’ve tried Laotian food too, Tony. Hard to swallow, huh?)

The thing is, most American food lovers have been taught to hate Tex-Mex. Diana Kennedy and Craig Claiborne convinced foodies in the 1970s that Tex-Mex is Mexican food that’s been bastardized by a bunch of dumb gringos. The average American has never heard of a Tejano. They have no idea that this is Tejano cooking and they are putting down a very old Hispanic culture when they trash Texan-Mexican food.

I think it’s all about the Velveeta. Nobody seems to mind the Cheez Whiz on a Philly Cheese Steak. But Tex-Mex chile con queso or enchiladas made with Velveeta are considered loathsome. The last time I attempted to defend the use of Velveeta in chili con queso, one Portland blogger suggested that “Walsh has been drinking his own Tex-Mex apologist Kool-Aid again.” He thought we should make chile con queso with fine imported cheese.

That reminded me of a famous Dave Hickey quote. Art critic Dave Hickey is from Fort Worth. While reviewing a rock opera for the Village Voice in the 1970s, he opined that rock n’ roll is like Tex-Mex–as it improves in quality it ceases to be what it is.

It’s probably a good thing if the East and West coast food snobs keep insulting Tex-Mex. That way we can keep playing the outlaws. And anyway, they love Tex-Mex in Paris.

38 comments to The Velveeta Underground (Apologies to Lou Reed)

  • Scott--DFW

    Pasteurized process cheese food is certainly a part of Tex-Mex, but primarily in the Tex-Mex consumed by the gringos in the state. In any Texas restaurant frequented mostly by Mexican Americans, it’s next to impossible to find. In those restaurants, queso fundido or flameado are made with honest cheese (and it’s a damn sight better than industrial glop nuked with a can of Ro-tel.)

  • Imisberthas

    Chile con Queso is not Queso Fundido/Queso Flameado. Very different styles.

  • Rebecca

    I’ve recounted this story before, but I took about five friends, who were visiting from Morelia, Michoacan, to the old El Chico in NW mall back in the 80s. They raved about the food and wanted to go back again and again. They said how popular a place like that would be in Mexico.

    Velveeta or the similar product used in commercial kitchens is the only way to go for cheese enchiladas and/or queso. Cheddar just leaves too much grease and is gloppy.

    Queso flameado should be made with white cheese, IMO. Is flameado Tex-Mex? I had never heard of it before the 80s when visiting friends in Northern Mexico.

  • Last summer in Beirut, our cousins came home from dinner at a new steakhouse raving over this dish they had that was, “Like a whole bowl of cheese that you ate with the chips.” I have no idea what kind of cheese they used but I plan on taking some fine Velveeta PPCP to Lebanon and making them a true Tex-Mex queso when we return this summer. TXMX! Represent!

  • Buddy

    Using fancy imported cheese in queso is like putting an elevator in an outhouse…it just don’t belong. (Apologies to the Roadhouse screenwriter)

  • Dannie

    I love Tex-Mex although I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of Velveeta. I don’t think you need fancy cheese because Tex-Mex isn’t about fancy cheese-it’s about good home cooking, great flavor, and good spices. I’ll choose cheddar over Velveeta any day but I wouldn’t give up Tex-Mex for the world.

  • Maureen Hall

    I always have to defend it as my choice for grilled cheese sandwiches too!

  • Brazos

    I think that Velveeta has been around long enough that both gringos and hispanics have embraced it. Nice Dave Hickey and Lou Reed reference btw. You and I are the same musical generation.

  • Maryse

    Amen! Queso without Velveeta is simply NOT queso imho. And if others aren’t into it, fine my me. I’ll take another order, please.

  • Sam Lander

    Walsh neglected to report that ALL YANKEES ARE OBLIGED TO EAT A LARGE SOUPBOWL OF CHILE CON QUESO AT THE TEXAS BORDER, or they can’t immigrate here. If they’re from California, that’s TWO soupbowls.

    Don’t mess with Tex-Mex!

  • Reuben

    “In any Texas restaurant frequented mostly by Mexican Americans, it’s next to impossible to find. ”

    Wow. Talk about a blanket statement. And one so wrong at that. Try some Tex Mex restaurants in The Valley, or the Permian Basin, or Houston, and you will find processed cheese used as an ingredient. And be prepared to order in Spansih, gabacho.

  • Steve

    Enjoyed my first plate of cheese enchiladas at El Real. And on my birthday of all days. Great job on the new place and can’t wait to try a lot more of the menu.

  • Taylor

    It’s sad really when a state that shares a border with Mexico has such a pitiful lack of authentic Mexican cuisine. Tex-Mex is pablum for the masses.

  • Stephen

    Taylor, just ’cause you don’t know where to look doesn’t mean “authentic Mexican cuisine” is not there. Hundreds of taco trucks in Harris county alone say you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    And you say “pablum [sic] for the masses” like it’s a bad thing. It’s not – Tex-Mex has never been about snobbery; if that’s what you’re after, look elsewhere.

  • Adrienne Byard

    Not to mention, Velveeta is cheap. In a tradition spanning generations, cheap and shelf-stable is what many Texans had available to them. It’s sad to see some have lost touch in such a manner than we require expensive cheeses to satisfy our 1st-world palate. There’s a romance involved in eating something most people didn’t have a choice but to use with ingenious utility. Not to mention, it tastes pretty damn good when served right.

  • John Lopez

    I have always agreed with you on foods, reviews, etc., but… I can see the attractIon of velveeta in queso, I have never used it. I have never had a cheese enchilada made with Velveeta that would compare to real cheese. I grew up eating/cooking classic cheese enchiladas with real cheese. Just saying…..

  • JanieT

    Felix Mexican Restaurant did not use velveeta!

    J.Tijerina

  • John

    Im from the Valley (tip of Texas). Tex-Mex is an institution in Texas, especially on the border. Its what we eat. Im sorry some out there dont like the fact that we DO eat processed cheese. Queso Flameado is NOT Chile con queso and if anything its more Mex-Tex (Northern Mexico) than Tex-mex (at least thats my opinion and I may be incorrect). Its made with queso oaxaca or some other type of white stringy cheese. On that note, why would you ruin mexican food (IMO) with “fancy” cheese. Most of the dishes are made from cheeses that were produced on ranches, e.g. queso fresco. Obviously those who criticize Tex-Mex are clearly not Texan. Its like saying that grits are pablum for the masses (which would obviously be a big mistake in the South)
    Taylor your comment that we have a pitiful lack of “authentic” Mexican cuisine is naive. First of all, there is no such thing as “authentic” Mexican food since Mexican food is regional. For example you wont find escamoles or bannana leaf tamales everywhere. Second, the food we eat in Texas is part of the Texan and Northern Mexican identity. Albeit processed, velveeta has become part of that identity. Viva Tejas!

  • Jayson

    You must realize that Queso is one of the 5 Redneck Mother Sauces… Salsa, Gravy, BBQ Sauce, Ranch Dressing, and yes, Queso! Take that Bourdain!

  • Dan

    Velveeta in queso is fine. Velveeta in cheese enchiladas is not.

  • Shannon

    Sometimes the cheapest cuts of meat make the best dishes, something that Bourdain is aware of. The same is true for cheese.

  • Kyle

    AMEN JanieT! You would know.

    I love Velveeta queso. I love it in my crock pot at home with a cold beer. Like most things, though, if it is that easy for me to make . . . do I really want to go pay $7 for a cup of it?

    Felix Mexican Restaurant had the best Queso in town, in the state, the world! Hands down. No Velveeta.

  • johnnyb

    The shelf-stable, low-cost comments are all right on. Let’s not forget that fancypants fajitas used to be mere skirt steak, and the only reason they came to be desirable is the amount of pounding, soaking, and seasoning required to make it consumable. By the time you were finished, the cheapest thing at the market was actually pretty damn good.

    Besides, just because it’s made with Velveeta doesn’t mean it’s all Velveeta and canned Rotel. Fresh vegetables or a dollop of guacamole can make queso far more than the sum of its parts.

    And right on about Anthony Bourdain too. You can go all over the world and impress yourself with local folk cuisine, but Texan native food isn’t good enough? Don’t slip in your sandals as you board the plane back home, buddy!

  • Christopher

    I hate to naysay, Kyle, but I went to Felix twice, and both times the queso was almost inedible, and my fat a** will eat almost anything. Man do I have a bad memory of that congealed mess of oily glop.

  • Matt

    Kyle
    Janie’s been dead for over a decade.

  • robbwalsh

    I believe when we are addressing JanieT, we are talking to Felix and Janie’s daughter.

  • Anthony Bourdain also thinks that rich, white people invented vegetarianism. Oh wait, that’s true. Well, whatever, Velveeta rocks, and the more people that hate Tex-Mex, the more there is for me to eat. So suck it Bourdain.

  • Bourdain can kiss my grits. Seriously. I’m so sick of people thinking they know Mexican and Tex-Mexican food, and telling you what it is and isn’t. True story: I went to a restaurant in Jersey City, NJ that doesn’t seem to really know what it’s about. Called Tacqueria, the menu boasts flautas, chilaquiles, and tamales along with a diatribe about the Gringos ruining Mexican food with sour cream and cheddar cheese. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Flauta a Tex-Mex term? A Mexican would call a Flauta a Taco. So I see flautas on a menu, I think I’m about to get my Tex-Mex on. I asked about Migas missing from their brunch menu. With a sneer and a snide tone, the owner said to me, “That’s a little too Tex-Mex, doncha think?”. Well excuse me, sir, what exactly is wrong with Tex-Mex? How could something possibly be TOO Tex-Mex, you snob? :P

  • Scott--DFW

    Standing up for cheese, as opposed to pasteurized process cheese food, is not to “hate Tex-Mex,” any more than standing up for handmade tortillas or freshly rendered lard (over sheet-extruded mass-produced tortillas and deodorized hydrogenated lard) is to hate Tex-Mex.

  • The OSD

    I agree with you Robb. “Nobody seems to mind the Cheez Whiz on a Philly Cheese Steak” is dead on.

  • Maggie May

    Felix had many fans but my favorite Classic Tex Mex came from Leo’s. Where they used a ton of Velveeta (or some similar product) in many dishes.

  • Bruce R

    Velveeta originated in New York. It’s funny that the two most common cheeses in Tex-Mex are Velveeta (New York) and Monterrey Jack (California).

  • Bruce R

    Amber, although flautas are found in Tex-Mex joints they are Mexican. Sounds like you’re the snob.

  • Larry

    Amber. Sorry to hit your pride, but flautas are not Tex-Mex, flautas is an original authentic Mexican dish. Hope you don’t make the same mistake twice at another restaurant.

  • Michael G

    Grew up in SoCal. My Pops Mom came from Las Cruces.My son goens to college in San Antonio. I am now Living in PDX. I have been making velveeta chile con queso with roasted hatch chiles for eons. Have fed it to unsuspecting hordes of friends who couldn’t dip a chip fast enough to keep from dripping and drooling.
    Velveeta is the king of quesos.
    Long live the King.

  • Chuck

    I’m late on this, but I agree with Dan…Velveeta for queso, but not enchiladas.

  • Adam

    I think this is a flawed argument. What do real Americans eat? Taco Bell and McDonalds. Just because that is what many, many Americans eat on a daily basis doesn’t change the fact that it’s crap. Defending velveeta is like defending the almost-meat of taco bell, or the never-moldy Big Mac patty.

  • I am a native Houstonian now living in Portland. Nearly no one knows what queso is, and it’s a shame. But I work and live on a church campus in the middle of one of Portland’s largest neighborhoods, and I’ll try to convince the composting/organic purists what Tex-Mex is all about, one potluck at a time.

    “Velveeta” and “Rotel” will soon sneak into their vocabularies…thanks for this post. Ongoing enlightenment needed here in the Northwest, amidst our already open minds.

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