Growing up in Arkansas, I just figured that everybody, everywhere mixed Velveeta brand processed cheese product with Ro-Tel tomato and chili pepper mix to form a delicious dip for chips. Turns out, this isn’t the case – folks here in Arkansas eat more Ro-Tel in a year than all other 49 states combined. Indeed, Arkansas has a good claim on inventing cheese dip altogether – not the chile con queso you might be used to in Tex-Mex restaurants, but a true cheese-based dip for corn chips. It was 1935 when Mexico Chiquito first started making a creamy, cheesy dip spiked with cumin and other spices, and ever since, Arkansas has had a heated and intense love affair with cheese dip. This year, local attorney and cheese dip lover Nick Rogers decided that is was time that Arkansas-style cheese dip went mainstream, and he not only helped create the first annual Cheese Dip Championship, he created a short film talking about the luscious dip and its importance to the Arkansas palate, “In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip.” (See it here).
The First Annual World Cheese Dip Championship was held at Dickey-Stephens park, home of the Arkansas Travelers. It was a beautiful October day, warm and clear, and the crowd was lined up for tickets, with a $10 armband getting the right to vote for the best cheese dip in the land ($5 armbands were also available just to taste). All proceeds went to the Harmony Health Clinic. We picked the $10 band, which gave us two votes: one for the best “professional” cheese dip (from restaurants) and one for the amateur category. Thirty-one booths awaited us, each serving up their creamy offerings.
That’s one of our first dips tasted, a spinach based cheese dip from Meadors/Adams insurance agency (an amateur category dip). The ladies from Meadors/Adams working the booth were confident in the quality of their dip – they held and office-wide competition to decide their entry into the Championship, and we agreed that their entry was very good and tasty, and although it lacked some of the spice and flavor of the professional entries, it was a very good dip, even though it perhaps needed a bit of salt or a spice kick. Still, we were pumped to taste the quality of entries provided by the competitors after going to this booth – their line was one of the longest, due to word-of-mouth talk about the quality of dip.
Next to the Meadors/Adams booth was our first taste of what the professionals had to offer; Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro’s cheese dip. This was not just a good, thick, flavorful dip, the Dizzy’s staff topped it with a fresh tasting pico de gallo that turned their dip into something really special. We took a chip, mixed the dip up, and found ourselves with a wonderfully spiced dip accentuated perfectly by the fresh taste of tomato, onion, and cilantro found in the pico. Dizzy’s dip was my ultimate vote for best in the professional division – it’s a dip you might be able to recreate in your home kitchen, and the topper was so fresh and good I would have been satisfied with eating it alone with chips.
Jess and I had our first disagreement at Richard Lindsey Jr.’s booth – his amateur offering was coupled with another table promoting “I ❤ Bacon” shirts, and his dip was the only bacon based dip at the Championship. I found the bacon-cheese mix very tasty, heavy and smokey, but Jess said it didn’t taste anything like cheese dip to her and found it way too heavy. We both agreed that the concoction would be excellent over a baked potato, and although Mr. Lindsey wasn’t my final Amateur category favorite, I’m still very fond of his dip.
Of course, we had to visit the Mexico Chiquito booth, because they are the originators of Arkansas cheese dip. The story goes that in the early 1930’s a Mexican pilot crash landed in Hot Springs, decided to stay there, and eventually moved to Little Rock with his take on Mexican cuisine. Part of his repertoire was a cumin-based cheese sauce that proved popular in both Hot Springs and Little Rock – not meat based like chile con queso, it was the first true cheese dip. Mexico Chiquito’s dip is a good, thick, creamy dip that really coats a chip and is worth snacking on.
Ferneau, Arkansas’s premiere gourmet eatery really upped the ante with their Blackened Crawfish with Green Chili cheese dip. We had earlier tried an amateur crawfish and sausage dip and decided that the fishy flavor of the crawfish coupled with its chewy texture was just too much to put into cheese dip – the Ferneau entry made liars out of us immediately. The dip was soft and good, with excellent spice, and the small chunks of crawfish tail were tender and lacked the fishy flavor we had found in the other dip. Granted, one would expect that an establishment like Ferneau, with it’s dinner for two hovering around $150-$200 to make a good attempt, but this dip was really spectacular. This was Jess’s vote for best professional entry, and I admit being torn between this entry and my vote for Dizzy’s. I have no idea if this dip is actually on Ferneau’s menu, but it should be. It was delicious.
Even more than Mexico Chiquito, Arkansas has one other famous cheese dip establishment: Stoby’s of Conway. Stoby’s booth was serving their white dip (they have a yellow as well), and this dip really is a well-rounded dip. Not spicy, but flavorful, this is probably the creamiest cheese dip we tasted today. The flavor was good and solid, and we were left with no doubt as to why people both local and outside the state go to Stoby’s to eat as well as buy their pre-packaged dip in stores.
The Merry Monks of Fayetteville had the Championship’s only vegan entry – and we loved it. We didn’t even know it was vegan at the time, although the huge chunk of tofu I found in my cup should have been a good indicator. This booth was one of the friendliest we came across, and their pun on the operator’s name (Mary Monk) was good, given their monk outfits. This was one of our favorite offerings in the amateur category; and we’re both very committed meat eaters. If this is what vegans call cheese dip, though, we’re fans, and we’d eat it any time.
Our last two booths provided us with both our favorite addition to the basic cheese dip and our favorite amateur competitor. Taqueria Karina had a super-spicy salsa that they offered to pour over their white cheese dip – and it was a very good addition, although it watered the dip down into something we weren’t sure if we should call cheese dip at all. The booth next to them was Patricia Miles, and her dip was the typical Velveeta and Ro-tel dip (very indicative of the amateur group), but her addition of Philadelphia cream cheese was a revelation: it was a creamy and smooth dip with a richness that only cream cheese can provide. By this time, we were full and almost overwhelmed by cheese dip, but the Patricia Miles dip brought us back to reality with the taste of what cheese dip made at home can really be. Jess said it was a lot like what her mom makes, and Jess’s mom is an incredible cook. Ms. Miles’ dip got our vote for best in the amateur category.
We had a lot of fun at the Cheese Dip Championship, and we made it back home just in time to catch the kickoff of the Arkansas-Texas A&M football game. We hope that this event will become a regular festival in Arkansas, because this is cheese dip country, and we take it very seriously. Happy eating, and melt some cheese, will ya?
Update: Winners here. More pics here. Looks like the 12-9 timeframe was too much for everyone and most people ran out of chips and dip by mid-afternoon, I’m glad we went early. Merry Monks, the vegan group will have their dip featured at the Capitol Bar and Grill – great job, your dip was excellent! Ferneau wins best meat dip, Dizzy’s wins most innovative dip. Full results at the link above – looks like people coming late got short shrift. It will be better next year, I’m sure! A fun day, no doubt.