Story & Photography by Kat Robinson
Texas may have queso on the menu at its Tex-Mex joints, but here in Arkansas, it’s cheese dip that’s celebrated. Attributed to the Donnelly family, who brought spices back from Mexico and blended them with American cheeses in 1935, the emulsion has become the baseline on which most Central Arkansas restaurants are judged.
It’s not just a Mexican or Ark-Mex restaurant standard – you’ll find it on the menu at pubs, burger joints, sandwich shops, steakhouses and pizza parlors. It comes in all flavors and ranges in color from orange (Mexico Chiquito) to yellow (Stoby’s) to white (Loca Luna) to green (U.S. Pizza Company) to red (Sparky’s) – spiced with everything from paprika to cilantro, a cheesy emulsion that is Central Arkansas’ default table share. Here are some of the best.
The closest thing you’ll get to the Blue Mesa cheese dip, the first white dip in Arkansas’ cheese dip lineage. Roasted green chile peppers give this signature dip its remarkable flavor.
Bubbling hot, with chunks of pepper, onion and tomato, this extraordinarily fresh queso is made fresh. Molcajete to keep it super hot on request.
Heights Taco and Tamale
The dip that beat Texas, this is the Melting Pot that includes five of Little Rock’s most famous cheese dips. This golden emulsion has depth and flavor that’s quickly won the hearts of Arkansas queso lovers.
Conway and Russellville
The beloved, super thick and creamy Cheddar-American flavor of this dip has earned it national fame and local pride. Eat in or pick it up at PattiCakes Bakery and take it home.
Advertised as a white dip, there’s actually a good deal of yellow blush to this thick, jalapeno touched queso.
The homestyle Velveeta and Rotel version goes amazingly well with the restaurant’s extraordinarily large tamales.
El Super Taco
Fort Smith and Van Buren
A white dip, this smooth queso panela/Monterrey Jack flavored dip is dotted with tiny bits of onion and pepper. Served with fresh fried yellow chips.
Maria’s Mexican Restaurant
Fort Smith, Rogers and Bentonville
The smooth mild creamy queso blanco bears lovely complex flavors of queso Asadero and, I suspect, some Jack cheese too.
This queso fundido is a blend of white Mexican cheeses that stands well on its own but is even better when ordered as fajita queso with chunks of beef or chicken. Eat it quick – the cheese will solidify once it begins to cool. Substantial.
The queso you can eat for breakfast, if you wish, this almost beige dip is the perfect pairing for morning coffee, black beans and golden chips. Casa Manana opens at nine on Fridays and Saturdays, perfect for a leisurely brunch.
The Cow Pen
This Velveeta-based Rotel dip includes extra dairy elements which makes it smoother, creamier, and is the perfect match for the restaurant’s famed bean dip.
Acambaro Mexican Restaurant
White, paprika and jalapeno enhanced dip that’s a beloved favorite amongst area folks. This is a sit down and savor dip.
Garlicky white or sharper yellow, the dips at this Tex Mex joint go well with beer and the house green salsa.
The Arkansas-style yellow cheese dip calls back to the great deep original dips – stronger than the original Mexico Chiquito, packed with Petit Jean bacon, served in a skillet and best shared over a beer.
US Pizza Company
Judy’s White Cheese Dip isn’t just great on the thick tortilla chips that regularly accompany the bowl. It’s also popular with some customers served over salad instead of dressing. Try it on the Philly pizza.
Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro
A three part cheese dip heavy on the onions and peppers, caramelized before being added to the emulsion to give the dip a lovely, slightly sweet flavor.
Reyes’ Mexican Restaurant
White, creamy, smooth and clingy, the Reyes offer this comforting dip alongside all sorts of reasonably priced favorites.
THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE CHEESE
Poblano peppers and onions give this solidly white, thick cheese dip an almost sweet flavor, based with a salty undertone.
Fayetteville, Springdale and Bentonville
Two types – yellow and smooth white – for either type of cheese dip lover in your family, served alongside made-to-order burritos, tacos and bowls. Try dunking your burrito in one of these.
A dip best served cold or lukewarm, this original has been served since the restaurant opened in the 1950s. Can’t make it to West Memphis? Pick it up in your local grocery store.
A surprisingly lovely pepper-chipped white blend that’s incredible paired with beef tacos or fajitas. Great bargain!
A queso rojo blend of cheese and spices so concentrated it actually appears orangish-red, even redder the longer it sits. Sweet, salty, cheesy, complicated and delectable.
Special note: Taco Kid Tuesdays at Local Lime include red sauce, broken taco shells for chips and the favored cheese sauce, a call-back to our childhoods. Make plans to head to Local Lime to celebrate this longtime Little Rock flavor.
And there’s no better time to celebrate cheese dip in Arkansas than October. That’s because each October, the world’s best makers to cheese dip converge on Little Rock to compete in the World Cheese Dip Championship. Amateurs and professionals alike will compete to see who’s serving up the best.
This year’s championship will be held on Oct. 20, from noon to 4 p.m., at the Clinton Presidential Center. Bring your appetite!
RELATED: Check out the 25 Greatest Burgers in Arkansas!