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¡Ay Chihuahua! The Right Cheese for a Quesadilla

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The quesadilla from La Mexicana restaurant completely changed my mind about that menu item. Normally, a quesadilla is like its American grilled-cheese-sandwich counterpart -- warm, gooey, comforting and something easily made well at home.

However, La Mexicana's version has a distinctive tangy white cheese, and I was entirely unable to make a similar one using store-bought "quesadilla" cheese. So I asked a longtime server what kind of cheese they used at the restaurant.

"It's Chihuahua cheese, and it comes here from Mexico," he informed me. I'd never heard of it before, so I investigated.

It's obvious which Mexican state the cheese comes from, but how it got there in the first place isn't. Chihuahua cheese originated from Mennonite farmers, who migrated to northern Mexico from Manitoba, Canada, in 1922, following a dispute with the Canadian government over how to run their schools. They were followed by many more Mennonites from Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.

The cheese itself was first known as queso menonita, after the Mennonite community, but eventually spread in popularity to the rest of the Mexican population and took on its present name, queso Chihuahua. That popularity came full circle, as many Mexicans moved north to Chicago, not far from where many of the Mennonites came from.

Back to the Midwest

In particular, Gilberto and Ignacio Villaseñor arrived there 40 years ago, and found a large market (nearly one-fourth of Chicago's population is of Mexican origin) and a supply of Wisconsin dairy milk to produce V&V Supremo Chihuahua cheese, which is one of the best quesadilla cheeses available in the United States.

I found V&V Supremo Queso Chihuahua at Central Market. It melts perfectly in a quesadilla, and has a sharpness similar to cheddar. I can't make quesadillas as good as La Mexicana's, because they have a slightly tangier cheese, better tortillas and guacamole, and an awesome agua fresca de melon to drink. On the other hand, I can customize at home with ingredients such as spinach, mushroom and onions.

It's ridiculous to give instructions on how to make a quesadilla, but I can offer a few learn-from-mistake tips.

1. Heat the inside of the tortillas before assembling the quesadillas, as it will help the cheese melt better.

2. When adding the Chihuahua cheese to the tortilla, leave some space on the outside edges, as the melted cheese will ooze to the edges.

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3. Keep the heat on medium, as it will give time for the filling to melt, without overly toasting the outside.

4. Wait a few minutes for the hot cheese to cool down before eating. Otherwise, you too will be exclaiming, "Ay, Chihuahua!"

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