There is mystery and magnetism to a cheese that won't melt, but instead turns golden and crispy on the griddle. And I've always been drawn to such grillers, like Cypriot haloumi, brandy-flamed Greek saganaki, or smoked Italian scamorza. My new favorite, though, is queso fresco from El Abuelito, a North Jersey producer making Mexican cheese in the Puebla style.
Queso fresco is soft, fresh and salty (which prevents oozing under heat), and comes as a compressed cake of grainy curds that resembles a dry ricotta. It can be sliced into cubes and pan-fried, as the gastropub Slate does for texture and warmth in its panzanella bread-and-tomato salad. Blended into a yucca dough, it adds a salty savor to the addictive "pan de bono" cheese buns at Chifa. And at the South Philly taqueria La Lupe, the kitchen crumbles the curds before reshaping them into a round that sizzles in butter on the griddle to a fluffier, golden patty. Tucked inside a handmade tortilla with guacamole and herbed onions for a queso taco, it gives the old grilled cheese a little Mexican magic.
El Abuelito queso fresco, at many local Mexican markets, $5 for 14 ounces at La Jarochita, 21 Wolf St., 215-389-5680.
- Craig LaBan