My family had a Sunday afternoon tradition growing up. Almost every week, after church let out, we would go to a Tex-Mex restaurant for lunch. Our favorites were El Fenix and Mother Mesquite’s, particularly El Fenix. I loved El Fenix; it is quintessential Tex-Mex in food, flavor, décor, and hospitality. I loved the rustic concrete floors, the dimly lit ambiance, and the bright colors that screamed Mexican fiesta. I mostly loved the food though. Their specialty was enchiladas, and that’s usually what every member of my family would order.
I got the same thing – every. single. time. It was called El Favorito on the menu, and it was definitely my favorito. El Favorito was nothing more than the dish known as soft cheese tacos, which are tortillas rolled and filled with grated cheese and baked off in a cheesy sauce. They’re so simple, yet sublime. Soft cheese tacos are really more like enchiladas, and for a long time I wondered why they weren’t just called cheese enchiladas. Then I learned that an enchilada is really only an enchilada if it’s topped with a chile sauce. The –chi– in the word stands for chile. So if you were to top the rolled tortillas with mole sauce, they would be enmoladas. If you top them with tomato sauce, they become entomatadas. And these are topped with a cheese sauce, not a chile sauce. So they would be, what, enquesadas? Did I just make up a word? Yeah, it’s easier to call them soft cheese tacos.
I miss El Fenix. Growing up, I loved it, but in a way, I took it for granted. I didn’t realize it was special. I cannot find a place like El Fenix in New York. So I make my el favorito at home. When I made these, we realized that Matt hadn’t ever tasted a soft cheese taco before. Since he didn’t grow up anywhere near Texas, he’s not too familiar with Tex-Mex cuisine. Over the years, little by little, I have been correcting that. I love making Tex-Mex and Mexican food for him. I love sharing that aspect of my childhood with him and incorporating those dishes into our home and our own traditions. He was an enormous fan of this recipe, and upon tasting the first bite, immediately asked when I planned to make it again. Yea! Score! I’m so honored and happy that he loves Tex-Mex food.
1 tbs unsalted butter
1/4 medium onion, finely diced
1 to 2 jalapeno chiles, stemmed, seeded, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken stock
1 tbs cornstarch
2 cups (8 oz) shredded American cheese
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes, either fire roasted or with green chiles
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Milk or half-and-half (optional)
12 corn tortillas
3 cups (12 oz) grated Cheddar cheese
To make the queso sauce, melt the butter in a medium pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion and jalapeno and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic to the pot and cook another 30 seconds.
Whisk together the chicken stock and cornstarch and then pour into the pot. While stirring, cook until the sauce begins to thicken, about 2 minutes.
Turn the heat to low and slowly stir in the American cheese, 1/4 cup at a time, until all the cheese is completely melted.
Stir in the spices, diced tomatoes, and cilantro. Adjust seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste. If you wish to thin the sauce, stir in the milk, one tbs at a time, until it’s the desired consistency. I don’t think I used any milk. Keep on low heat while you assemble everything.
To make the tacos, preheat the oven to 375 F. Pour 1/2 cup of the queso sauce into the bottom of a large, greased baking dish.
Warm the tortillas and keep them warmed in foil or a tortilla warmer while you work. Take a warm tortilla and, on a clean surface, add 1/4 cup grated Cheddar down the center of the tortilla then roll it up. Place it seam side down in the baking dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas.
Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the cheese has melted. Remove from the oven, remove the foil, and pour the remaining queso sauce over the tacos. Serve immediately.