Mortimer Sánchez

Queso caper

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I looked down at a plate of food recently, and couldn’t resist asking the question.

“Que es eso? Queso?”

I had my doubts. I know my cheese. And it’s missing. There’s been an invasion of the cheese snatchers! Night of the missing chee…ok, I’ll stop.

But, for the love of culture, where has all the good Mexican cheese gone? There’s a doppelganger in its place, a stunt-double: dreaded CHEDDAR! For god’s sake, it’s yellow! It wasn’t yellow when it was milk!

Yeah, I said doppelganger. Want another fancy word? Simulacra. It’s everywhere: false representations of something real thing, taking over as a more believable representation. Like Mexican food in America. Really, now. If you took cheddar away from Macayos, they’d go bankrupt. Crowds would cry out, “THIS is not Mexican food!” Fools, I say!!!

So I hit the investigative trail for some elusive favorites. Panela, cotija, requesón, Chihuahua, and strong añejo enchilada. Oh, yes! I’ll need a diet after this story.

Now, any good Mexican knows a few varieties are at the Ranch Market, and Food City. But I’m a foodie, not a chef! Where’s the restaurant? I started the hunt online.

Within two clicks I found a week-old article about a deadly strain of tuberculosis hiding in some unpasteurized Mexican cheeses. That was in Southern California, but hey – the element of danger makes for bonus points!

Oaxaca Restaurant: I first risked my unvaccinated life at this south Phoenix establishment. I’d been here years ago and remembered it as a cozy little piece of authenticity.

Failure. Not only was there no tuberculosis – they only use American and Monterey Jack cheese. And the coziness? Gone. Now it’s a big, tan airport terminal-esque restaurant with high ceilings and no wall art. The food was textbook mediocrity and I was heartbroken.

La Tolteca: My next destination held a little more promise. This place is lively, with every wall a canvas for amateur muralists who just couldn’t put the damn paintbrush down.

I mixed things up with a Mexican pizza slathered in Oaxacan cheese and a side-order soft taco with machaca and a mound of soft Queso Fresco – Mexico’s take on a Spanish cheese called Burgos.

The light flavored Queso Fresco stole the show. I could sit and scoop a bowl of that stuff into my mouth like a very happy lunatic.

The Mexican pizza just wasn’t the right place for Oaxacan cheese. Still, it wasn’t yellow.

Strolling through the grocery portion of La Tolteca, I spotted an enormous wedge of Cotija cheese sitting in one food counter. That was my next prey. Who needs parmesan, when we have Cotija!?

First I tried Tacos de Juarez, glamourously located next to a bus station on 7th St. Failure. “No Mexican cheese aqui!” – with a smile, she said!

Back to the Internet. Several places around town claim Cotija as an ingredient in their fancy fusion cuisine. But fusion? I don’t want thermonuclear physics! Just lunch – good ole’ Mexican cheese lunch.

What about Tradiciones? Not on the menu! You guys are right next to the Ranch Market!

I was desperate for success. I probably frightened the waitress at Sierra Bonita Grill by ordering so much food. Green corn tamales with Manchego cheese, three mini quesadillas stuffed with black beans, spinach leaves and Mexican Menonita cheese. I washed it all down with a big bowl of Sopa Azteca sprinkled with Panela cheese.

But no cotija.

They were wimpy on the cheese they did have, and I was heartbroken by the soup. Something about that salty soup stock tasted like Campbells had screwed up another classic. It only made me miss real Sopa Azteca in the hills of Zacatecas.

After I engorged myself, I had to escape. There was hardly enough cheese to make it worthwhile, and all the cowboy paintings on the wall were freaking me out.

That’s when I realized I was trying too hard. No need to break into my retirement fund for a taste of Cotija. That night I stopped at a Mexican hotdog stand in Glendale. “Just the bacon. No cheese. Thanks.” Truce!

But let’s save all the Chedder for where it belongs: Art galleries! That’s the only reason people go is for the cheese, anyway… isn’t it?

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