Better Than Texas – The Big Cheese

Travel

words: Dwain Hebda
images: courtesy Heights Taco & Tamale, and Dwain Hebda

Scott McGehee draws a hand-made tortilla chip the size of a poker card out of a basket on the table in front of him. It’s a bracing Friday afternoon but that hasn’t kept the crowds away from Heights Taco & Tamale Co. and the din inside the eatery is deafening. “I can’t believe I’m still eating this stuff,” Scott says, swirling the chip through a velvety pool crowned with a diadem of green chile sauce. “I’ve been eating so much of this lately you’d think I’d be sick of it.”

 

“This” is Scott’s signature Five Families cheese dip, the species served at his chic Ark-Mex joint in Little Rock’s elegant Heights neighborhood. It’s one of a few versions woven throughout Scott’s Little Rock restaurant empire that currently includes a handful of establishments and the fastest-growing craft beer label in the state under the umbrella company, Yellow Rocket Concepts. “I’ve got five restaurants that each serve a different type of cheese dip,” Scott says. “My favorite cheese dip is actually my father’s original (served at Big Orange, Scott’s gourmet burger emporium).

 

“I love that recipe ‘cause it’s so chunky with onions and five kinds of peppers. If cheese dip could be gourmet, then that would be the gourmet version.”

 

But it’s the Five Families concoction, hustled out of the kitchen on piping cast iron skillets, that’s special. Scott acquired an amalgam of iconic cheese dip recipes—among them, his father Frank McGehee’s formula from the bygone Juanita’s and Browning’s, which operated for decades in the space he bought for Heights Taco & Tamale—dumped them into a pot and refined the brew until the result was greater than the sum of its parts.

2016-World-Cheese-Dip-Championship-in-Little-Rock

Scott McGehee, Jose Romero, Ben Brainard at the 2016 Cheese Dip World Championship in Little Rock

 

What he came away with is edible archive; eighty years of Little Rock restaurant heritage on a plate. Heights Taco & Tamale can’t ladle it up fast enough. “To me, [the component recipes] are the greatest cheese dips in central Arkansas lore,” he says. “This recipe, I made over three thousand times in the development phase.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Scott’s formula is a closely guarded secret, the recipe locked in a vault at an undisclosed location. Many Arkansans might have been happy to have kept it that way, the better to enjoy the creamy delicacy for themselves, served straight up, topped with chili or a selection of house-made sauces.

 

Instead, the dish caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal last year, after Yellow Rocket’s PR man Jarrod Johnson phoned a contact he had there, more or less on a whim. To everyone’s surprise, the influential paper was intrigued, even more so after learning of Arkansas’ long-standing claim as the birthplace of cheese dip.

 

To me cheese dip is fun, and it’s delicious, and it’s a great appetizer.

 

The way the well-worn story goes, an Arkansas restaurateur named Blackie Donnely started serving the dish in the mid-1930s. It’s unclear if it was available in Blackie’s early venture in Hot Springs or his next spot, the more-famous and longer-lived original Mexico Chiquito in North Little Rock, which still serves the original recipe to this day. Regardless, Blackie’s product stands as a sort of Dead Sea Scroll in cheese dip archeology.

 

Frank McGehee was imbued with a passion for cheese dip and constantly tinkered with his own recipes during Scott’s growing up, a father-son outing typically included grabbing a bowl at Browning’s then walking up the block to the Heights Theater to take in a movie. Discussing the dish today, Scott’s tone is more nostalgic than passionate, but he’s a fierce defender of its heritage.

 

“To me cheese dip is fun, and it’s delicious, and it’s a great appetizer, but it’s not the pinnacle of Arkansas food. That’s way down on the list,” Scott says. “I don’t want Arkansas food to be defined by cheese dip, I think that’s silly.

 

“But,” he adds emphatically, “it was invented here.”

 

Texans were particularly prickly about the November 2016 Wall Street Journal piece, not on the basis of origins (though they’re loathe to concede that point), but because of the article’s contention that Arkansas’ dish is superior to their beloved queso. When Arkansas Senators Tom Cotton and John Boozman took to trash-tweeting their Lone Star colleagues, Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz on the matter, it didn’t take long for things to bubble  over.

 

Photo-Oct-24,-11-29-19-AMA gauntlet was thrown down in the form of a blind dip duel to be held at an upcoming Senate Republican luncheon in December, to let the tortilla chips fall where they may. Scott’s phone rang almost immediately. “My father played for the Razorbacks under Frank Broyles,” he says. “I was raised in the Southwest Conference days when Texas was our arch enemy. I still, when I see orange, I don’t see Tennessee, I see Texas.

 

“So, when I first heard about [the challenge], I immediately thought, ‘Well, we’ve got to represent Arkansas.’”

 

Heights Taco & Tamale didn’t have to lobby for the honor. The restaurant had just come away from the 2016 World Cheese Dip Championships October 22 in Little Rock with both judges’ and crowd favorite honors. Still, the Arkansas contingency was all business getting ready for the showdown.

 

“We made the cheese dip the day we left and cooled it down in an ice bath,” Scott says. “Put it in very high dollar thermal containers, six of them, each holding half a gallon. We put it in our checked luggage.”

 

Scott McGehee

Scott McGehee

Scott’s team reserved a D.C. hotel room equipped with a mini kitchen where they reanimated the concoction. They even researched tortilla chips in the nation’s capital until they found a variety they considered to be the best for completing the ensemble.

 

Whether or not they were an underdog depends on who you ask. Their Texas-based chain rival Uncle Julio’s operates a location in Virginia, which gave them access to a professional kitchen and de facto home field advantage. But Scott didn’t see it that way, at least initially. “I never considered the possibility of losing, not for a second. I didn’t think that would even be possible,” he says. “It wasn’t until the other team showed up and they took our cheese dip and their queso into the luncheon and set up these little voting boxes and shut the doors, that it occurred to me. If we lost, we probably could not go back to Arkansas. I never even considered the risk I was taking until it was too late.”

 

The cooking teams were left to cool their heels for an hour in the hallway with what Scott estimated as some 100 members of the press; all congregated to await the outcome of the blind taste test. Scott burned nervous energy composing remarks on his phone preparing for either outcome. At last, the door opened. “They called us in and there was a big pile of tickets for Arkansas and a small one for Texas,” he says. “I don’t know the exact score, but I do know there were about forty-five or fifty senators there and there was only six or seven tickets on the Texas side. We smoked them; they called Arkansas by a landslide.”

 

It was the cheesy shot heard around the world. Reports of Arkansas’ win, in print and on airwaves coast to coast, set Arkansans celebrating while Texas fumed. Senator Cruz hinted the fix was in to which Senator Boozman responded by extending a standing invitation to his colleagues to cross the border anytime they wanted a taste of victory, something Scott is all too glad to oblige. “I don’t want to be known for cheese dip, but also I do,” Scott says. As he’s talking, he’s scanning the Heights Taco & Tamale dining room jammed with Little Rock’s hipster elite, nouveaux riche and everyone in between who are sharing laughs and chatter over skillets of Five Families. “If they ever want to redo the competition, we’re happy to do it. What we serve is better than anything in Texas.”

 

To try this famous cheese dip, visit:
Heights Taco & Tamale Co.
5805 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
501.313.4848 | facebook.com/heightstaco

 

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