I grew up in Santa Ana, California on First and Bristol Street right behind El Toro Meat Market. A staple in the community, el super offered not only meat, but fresh tortillas, masa, harder-to-find Mexican produce (like tejocotes or guanabanas), and — most importantly — a very stocked cheese counter that never failed to bring me (and my belly) great joy.
Behind the glass, there'd be crumbly rounds of queso fresco — a creamy, fresh, mildly salty cheese, perfect for breaking up and scattering over flautas, frijoles de olla, or baked in a chile relleno. And, the slightly drier, firmer queso cotija — saltier but still mild, perfect for dusting onto sopes, huaraches, and refried beans.
There'd be tubs of luscious crema ágria and crema Mexicana — the former much looser and subtler than the latter, think crème fraiche versus sour cream — that I'd dream of drizzling onto enchiladas, tacos dorados, flautas, (more!) chiles rellenos, or elotes preparados.
But, most importantly (in our case, at least), are the two, squeaky, stringy, sturdy-but-melty cheeses at the counter: queso Oaxaca and Panela.
Queso Oaxaca is a creamy, semi-hard cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It resembles string cheese in flavor and texture (and so, mozzarella is a great substitute in a pinch). Panela, on the other hand, is creamy, dense, and much firmer. It's great for frying or grilling, as the outside will not only hold, but crisp up, while the interior gets nice and melty (like halloumi). I like queso Oaxaca in griddled quesadillas — which show off the cheese's maximal melty qualities, and Panela in fried quesadillas — in which the sturdy cheese melts, but mostly retains its shape.
A quesadilla — whether griddled or fried — can be a great, easy-cheesy companion to many dishes, like birria or these michelada ribs. (A quesadilla also makes a perfect late-night drinking snack, something I can confirm.)
Quesadillas are also happy to be dressed up for a full meal. Think: fresh and charred salsas, a scoop of jalapeño escabeche, a puddle of frijoles de la olla, a side of pea- and corn-flecked arroz rojo. Whether you're team griddled or fried, here's a guide on how to make either (or both!) at home.
How to make griddled quesadillas
For a griddled quesadilla, you're going to need a comal, medium or large skillet, or flat-top griddle set over medium-low heat, a corn or flour tortilla, and 1/4 cup of shredded queso Oaxaca (or sub with mozzarella in a pinch).
1. Toast your tortilla
Start by placing your tortilla on your comal or skillet and let your tortilla toast for 1 minute. Flip and toast another minute.
2. Add the cheese, fold, and flip
Add the queso Oaxaca or mozzarella to half of the tortilla, fold, then place a lid over the quesadilla. Placing a lid over your quesadilla will create steam and help melt the cheese. Let the quesadilla cook for 2 to 2 1/2 minutes on one side, then flip and cook for another 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, or until the tortilla is well-toasted and the cheese is thoroughly melted.
3. Serve with beans, salsa, or ham (!)
Griddled quesadillas are great with a bowl of frijoles de la olla, or by themselves with a spoonful of a spicy salsa de molcajete. If you want to take your quesadilla to the next level, add a slice of ham on top of the cheese before you fold the tortilla and you have a sincronizada!
How to make fried quesadillas
For a fried quesadilla you're going to need a medium-sized skillet, 1 cup of vegetable oil, a corn tortilla, and 1 (3-inch-by-4-inch) slice of Panela.
1. Heat the oil
Start by heating the vegetable oil in the skillet.
2. Warm the tortilla
While the oil heats, pop your tortilla in the microwave for 1 minute. This is going to help make the tortilla pliable; a cold tortilla will break if you try to fold it.
3. Add the cheese, fold, and fry
Take the tortilla and place the slice of Panela on one half of the tortilla then fold in half. Once the oil is hot and shimmering, dip the quesadilla into the oil and fry for 3 to 3 1/2 minutes on each side until crispy and golden.
4. Serve with shrettuce, salsa, and more cheese
Fried quesadillas are great dressed with shredded lettuce, tomato slices, crumbly queso cotija, and a creamy avocado salsa.
Variations & toppings beyond shrettuce
Instead of corn or flour — paratha
Instead of corn of flour, try assembling a quesadilla with these paratha tortillas. Fat gets spiraled into each dough round, yielding buttery, flaky tortillas reminiscent of paratha.
Salsas: Roasted, fresh, both?
This roasted salsa recipe from F52er ButterandThyme unites charred tomatillos, serrano, and jalapeño chiles, with spicy-fresh onions, floral cilantro, and creamy avocado. Or, try Grandma Imelda's grilled version, which combines quick-pickled onions with smoky tomatoes and a generous hit of lime.
A very good pot of beans
Frijoles de la olla, or stovetop beans, are typically simmered along aromatics like a sweet, yellow onion, handful of smashed garlic cloves, fresh thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf. All of which would be happy to be plugged into Rachel Roddy's Genius slow-and-low pot of rich and creamy beans.