The chile con queso you know best may be a jar of tomato- and chile-flecked processed cheese. But it can be a thing of unparalleled beauty, a deliciously messy, fiery, thin salsa capped with molten cheese meant to be pinched with fresh tortillas.
You may not learn about this version until you visit southern New Mexico — home to the famous, long green Hatch chiles — and start asking around about where to eat.
“Have you been to Chope’s?” the locals say. “You gotta try their chile con queso.”
Located in the small farming community of La Mesa, N.M., about 20 miles south of Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city, Chope’s Town Bar & Cafe comprises two buildings on a gravel lot along Highway 28: a 19th-century adobe home turned restaurant, which opened in 1909, and a whitewashed bar that opened 40 years later.
Inside the bar, families, farmers and leather-clad bikers chat over the jukebox, which plays a mix of ’80s rock and thumping reggaeton. The chile con queso is deceptively monochromatic, a white bowl filled with melted white Cheddar and served alongside warm, foil-wrapped flour tortillas. Customers tear off bits of tortilla and plunge them through the thick cheese layer to unearth diced roasted chiles simmered in their own tangy, spicy liquor.
“That’s the traditional Mexican preparation style,” said Josefina Garcilazo, Chope’s head chef, in Spanish. She represents just a handful of people who have been entrusted with this 80-year-old recipe, which dates to the family’s forebears in Copper Canyon, Mexico.
“Queso Velveeta is,” she said, “gringo.”
Ms. Garcilazo works from a small galley kitchen inside the restaurant, the former home of its founders, Longina and Margarito Benavides. They named it Chope’s after their son, José Benavides, called Chope for his uniform of overalls, or chopos. Chope Benavides and his wife, Lupe, the originator of the chile con queso recipe, took over in the 1940s. Their daughters, Margarita Martinez, Amelia Rivas and Cecilia Yañez, now own the restaurant.
D.J. Martinez, Ms. Martinez’s son and a fourth-generation manager with his brother Michael Martinez, said he feels duty bound to safeguard his grandmother’s recipe, as he does Chope’s thick-battered chiles rellenos and sturdy enchiladas.
To him, they’re more than just recipes.
“Do you know what sazón means?” Mr. Martinez said. “Sazón means, like, the culture, the tradition, and the style of cooking all come together and create the flavor. That’s kind of what it means; that’s why it tastes so good.”
An El Paso native, the chef John Lewis grew up eating at Chope’s, a straight shot up Interstate 10, every other Saturday. And every meal began with queso. “Chope’s version exactly translates to how it’s read: It’s chiles with cheese.” He has tinkered with the simple dish for years and now serves a version at his New Mexican restaurant, Rancho Lewis, in Charleston, S.C.
Chope’s chile con queso starts with meaty, Anaheim-esque Joe E. Parker green chiles, which are grown and roasted in Las Cruces and Hatch — the center of chile production in New Mexico. Mariana Amaya, an assistant cook who has worked at Chope’s for 35 years, peels and dices them before simmering them — perhaps with chicken stock or onions?
Ms. Amaya makes all of Chope’s salsas, including three five-gallon containers per day of the base for its chile con queso and chile con carne. She is the caretaker of an industrial grater that’s also been here for 35 years, on which she grinds 50-pound blocks of white Cheddar daily before heaping a towering pile atop each bowl of salsa, the same way she has for decades.
“The cook is what makes the chile con queso special,” Ms. Amaya said, in Spanish. “I love my job.”