The queso at Chipotle was not the bland dairy, potentially Norovirus-causing goo I anticipated.
Let me elaborate.
As long as I have lived in Texas (over 10 years now), I have been a firm advocate of the "Why In The Hell Would You Eat Tex-Mex From A National Chain Here" school of thought. This belief system has led me to patronize heavy-hitters (Ninfa’s and El Tiempo) as well as under-appreciated joints (La Tapatia and Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe) and abjure the likes of Taco Bell and Chipotle.
But recently, I had to eat crow after tryng a recently debuted menu item at the latter institution: the queso. A coworker of a close friend suggested it as a ripe topic for an article—I suspect because he predicted I would abhor it and then readily rip Chipotle a new one. That is not my preferred modus operandi as a food critic but I will do it if necessary. And for all the times I have grabbed for what some might call low-hanging fruit, I also have a fairly consistent record of being pleasantly surprised by the quality of ostensibly dubious products.
After popping into Hot Bagel Shop for my requisite Saturday morning bialy, I scaled the bushes dividing it and Chipotle to try the queso. The employees were initially confused by my order of just a $2 side of queso without chips, then horrified when, observing my bialy, they concluded I was going to use it as my vehicle for the melted cheese. To them, my apologies, I simply wanted to try the queso on its own without the risk of positive or negative flavor interference by a fried tortilla.
Prickly pepper and heady cheddar were the twin tastes that first hit my tongue, followed soon after by cumin, garlic and onions. The mild heat pleasantly pulsated throughout subsequent spoonfuls but never so aggressively as to overwhelm the essential salty simplicity of the creamy base. I couldn’t parse blind what other sources of spice were involved, and a check of the official ingredient list revealed Chipotle uses multiple, including jalapeño, Poblano and chipotle chiles, and bell peppers.
Apparently, Chipotle has struggled for quite some time to create a queso that follows the brand’s commitment to using natural ingredients. Their efforts have been worth it. I may have to rethink my avoidance of Chipotle for the opportunity to use this queso as a dunking sauce for a giant burrito.