Food and Drink

Why Sizzling Cheese Dishes Are Turning Heads in Restaurants Everywhere

From flaming kasseri to bubbling queso fundido, these theatrical plates are causing a chain reaction.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

At the colourful Zou Zou’s, which opened in Manhattan last fall, the atmosphere is revelrous. “When the restaurant is full, bustling is almost understatement,” says the restaurant’s executive chef, Madeline Sperling. “There’s a lot of party energy.”

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most popular dishes at the Mediterranean-style restaurant is the kasseri cheese dish, which is served tableside and, quite literally, set on fire.

Sizzling cheese dishes are fixtures of Mexican and Greek restaurants around the United States and are a simple, but winning formula: cheese, a splash of alcohol, and fire. Recently opened restaurants around the country, like Mandolin Aegean Bistro in Los Angeles, are giving these dishes renewed excitement.Sperling’s flaming kasseri hearkens to traditional cheese saganaki. In Greece, “saganaki” refers to dishes prepared in a two handled frying pan-the best known of which is the cheese saganaki, traditionally fried in butter or olive oil and served with lemon. It wasn’t until the now-closed┬áParthenon in Chicago that Greek-seeking diners in the United States came to know the flaming cheese dish. Waiters would set the cheese ablaze, shout “Opa!” and deliver it to awestruck guests (and the other guests followed suit). Even in the pre-Instagram days, people loved a spectacle.

When Sperling and her chef de cuisine, Juliana Latif, planned their menu, they knew they needed another hot appetizer. Latif suggested a flaming cheese dish. “We kind of looked at each other because it seemed kind of obvious,” Sperling says. “It’s not a particularly creative dish by definition, but at the same time, it’s very crowd-pleasing to get a pan of hot cheese.”

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

To make the cheese dish, they use a block of kasseri cheese (made from sheep’s milk) and dredge it in flour. It’s then seared and served bubbling in a small cast iron pan with candied pumpkin seeds and aleppo chili flakes. “At the table, we pour about an ounce of Arak-a Lebanese anise-flavoured liqueur with high alcohol-so that when we light it catches fire pretty dramatically,” Sperling explains. The dish is served with talami bread with Arak-macerated golden raisins in it. In Dallas, the Mexican restaurant Vidorra has been grabbing the attention of their diners with flaming queso fundido since 2018 (a second location opened in 2020). The dish features melted Oaxaca cheese (a white, semi-hard cheese with a texture similar to mozzarella) with a variety of topping options such as squash, chorizo, and chicken tinga. It’s given a splash of tequila and set on fire in a molcajete bowl, which reaches 400 degrees.

“When it goes through the dining room, obviously everyone’s pointing and oohing and aahing,” says Rodman Shields, director of culinary experiences for Milkshake Concepts, which owns Vidorra). “We love everyone to take pictures of our stuff. We do a lot of presentations on authentic dishes that are tweaked our way to make them kind of eye-catching.”

Vidorra
Vidorra
Vidorra

When an order of flaming fundido leaves the kitchen, the chefs at Vidorra know that more orders will be placed, says Shields-likenings it to the “fajita effect.” “When one goes out for the dining room, we sell a ton of queso. So when the waiter walks out of the kitchen with that, diners can see it and smell it and see the steam coming off and the bubbles,” says Shields. “It’s a number one seller for sure.”

In fact, sound is important to how we perceive the foods we eat, says Robin Dando, an associate professor of food science at Cornell University. But when it comes to the popularity of sizzling cheese dishes, it’s likely as simple as classical conditioning. “We all know about it from Pavlov, and really, I think that’s what’s happening when somebody orders a dish like that,” Dando says. “Then you’ll start to see other people within the restaurant looking over, and then ordering the same dish, and starting some kind of cascade.”

Essentially, we associate a certain sound with a delicious taste ahead (that crackling of the cheese as it whirs past your table, the distinct crunch of potato chips). “We know that it’s going to be a crunchy, crispy, satisfying dish, because we’ve probably had it before at some point,” he says. When it comes to sizzling cheese dishes, there’s also a theatrical element. The idea of theatre is nothing new to Sperling, who came from the Make It Nice Group, which had a truffle-stuffed roasted chicken presented table-side. “I definitely think that’s something people can be excited about when returning to restaurants after isolation,” says Sperling. “You can cook delicious food at home, but hospitality tableside service is something you can only get dining at a restaurant.”

After all, maybe setting cheese on fire should be left to the experts. “We definitely don’t want to do that at home,” she laughs.

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, and CNN Travel.

Food and Drink

We Tried 22 Trader Joe's Dips and Here's How They Stack Up

From vegan tzatziki to fiery Zhoug sauce to classic spinach, these deserve a spot in your cart.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

With football season looming over us, that only means one thing: dip season is back. Whether you’re gathering for an end-of-summer bash, watching the game, or in dire need of a snack to indulge in while binge watching the latest Netflix series to drop, dips are the perfect option. And at Trader Joe’s, there are a lot of dips to choose from.

That’s why we decided to write this guide to dips, with helpful pairing ideas for each. So whether you’re interested in something spicy and don’t know what to eat with Zhoug sauce, or you want a classic spinach dip, these are almost all the dips at Trader Joe’s reviewed for your needs (we’ve excluded hummus and salsas, otherwise it’d be miles long and your heartburn would be even worse).

Buffalo Style Chicken Dip

This Buffalo-style chicken dip is a cult favourite and with good reason. The sharp tang and heat of Buffalo sauce is present, but relatively mild in terms of spice level. That, paired with the tub of shredded chicken, makes for a filling dip ideal for watching a sports game. Although Trader Joe’s suggests eating it hot, it’s delightful cold as well.
Pair with: crostinis, golden cracker rounds, tortilla chips, celery sticks, carrots

Caramelized Onion Dip

The caramelized onion dip is one of my favourites that Trader Joe’s has produced. It’s delectably sweet, like a French onion soup, but balanced perfectly with the tang of the sour cream and mayo base. The texture of this dip is mousse-like; fluffy, light, and airy. It’s an onion dip but upgraded.
Pair with: golden rounds crackers, potato chips, toasted baguette

Chimichurri Sauce

Although this chimichurri sauce lives in the dip section, we think of it more as a condiment. It’s lovely topped on meats or slathered in sandwiches. The ingredients are simple-parsley and cilantro are the defining items here-but you’re left with a very flavorful and aromatic olive oil-based sauce. If you really want to use it as a dip for crostinis, that would work, too.
Pair with: eggs, steak, shrimp, rice

Chunky Artichoke & Jalape├▒o Dip

This dip can be heated up or eaten straight from the fridge-both versions remain creamy, piquant, and spectacularly chunky, as advertised. The main flavour takeaway is the artichoke, which this dip is loaded with, but you will feel a tingle of spice from the jalape├▒os, too. It reminds me of schmear and would definitely make a great spread for a bagel.
Pair with: bagels or bagel chips, tortilla chips, pretzels

Cauliflower Jalape├▒o Dip

Of all the dips, this one took me the most by surprise. I associate cauliflower with blandness, but this is far from that. It has a smooth texture (which surprised me because cauliflower can also be gritty), and a subtle heat from the jalape├▒os. I would prefer a bit more jalape├▒o, but it’s mild enough that anyone can enjoy this at a party.
Pair with: Veggie tray, potato chips, strawberry & jalape├▒o crisps

Everything and the Elote

Maybe it’s the fact that fresh elote is so amazing that renders this dip a little bit disappointing in comparison. It’s seasoned well with chipotle, cumin, and chili powder. But what it’s really lacking is in the name. There’s not enough sweet corn kernels in this dip to balance out the other spices and the cheese. Perhaps if you added this fresh corn, you could make a large batch of esquites.
Pair with: organic corn dippers, corn salad

Everything But the Bagel

I do feel like it was a misstep to use a Greek yogurt base rather than a sour cream and cream cheese blend for this dip to really give the vibe of breakfast bagels. Sure, the Greek yogurt is still sharp and smooth, but the dip feels runnier than it should be. That being said, if you’re a fan of everything bagels and the seasoning blend Trader Joe’s makes, this will fulfil you: poppy seeds, dehydrated onion, dried garlic, and black sesame seeds galore.
Pair with: bagel chips, Everything But the Bagel crackers

Garlic Spread Dip

It’s obscene how delicious this garlic spread dip tastes on just about everything. Personally, I can eat it by the spoonful. It’s smooth and creamy, with just the right amount of lemon juice and the unmistakable aroma of garlic. Yes, it’s delicious by the spoonful, but would also be delicious in a thousand other applications.
Pair with: pita bread, rotisserie chicken, tortillas, sandwiches, honestly everything

Green Goddess Dip

Like the titular salad, this dip is bright, very green, and refreshingly herbaceous. The avocado and green onion are strengthened by garlic, shallots, chives, and basil. Unlike homemade versions, this dip contains both eggs and sour cream, so keep that in mind for plant-based friends.
Pair with: sandwiches, salads, veggie trays, multigrain crackers

Herbed Tahini Sauce

I was expecting a stronger nuttiness from this herbed tahini sauce, but the dominating flavour is garlic and a tartness from the citric acid. It’s still refreshing and a great partner to falafel and sandwiches, but the tahini flavour is in the background. I can really envision this as a successful sauce for a cold noodle salad, spruced up with additional sesame seeds and perhaps a dollop of chilli crisp.
Pair with: dill pickle falafel, garlic pita chips, cold noodles

Olive Tapenade

If you’re an olive fan, this Trader Joe’s tapenade will hit the spot. Crafted from a blend of black olives, green olives, and pimentos, it’s the right amount of saltiness and perfect chunky consistency for scooping. It would fare well atop hummus, scooped into a pasta salad, or just eaten straight.
Pair with: a charcuterie board, fig & olive crisps, pasta salad

Pimento Cheese Dip

I would argue that this pimento cheese dip does the Southern classic justice. Each bite is full of sharp cheddar and studded with diced pimentos for a dip that is simultaneously chunky and creamy. Would be excellent on a pimento cheese sandwich.
Pair with: multigrain crackers, tortilla chips, bread for a sandwich

Romesco Dip

The romesco dip is like summer unlocked through a small, eight-ounce container. There’s a brightness from tomatoes, a fuller, rounder flavour from roasted red peppers, and nuttiness from almonds. I think of it as a red almond pesto, almost. It’s great with veggies, could be tossed in a pasta, or just eaten with a hefty cracker.
Pair with: pasta, veggies sticks, raisin and rosemary crisps

Smoked Salmon Dip

If you’re a fan of lox, you’ll be a fan of this dip. It’s briny and salty and pleasantly fishy but the capers work well to cut through a flavour that may otherwise feel overwhelmingly rich. There is a generous amount of fish in this dip, as well as seasoning, so it really only needs a blank canvas to let it shine.
Pair with: bagels, multigrain crackers, or even pasta (try this Trader Joe’s recipe)

Sour Cream Spinach Dip

This is perfectly acceptable. It is not the most exciting dip on this list, but it does provide that classic spinach dip flavour, albeit a bit more tart due to the sour cream base. It would benefit from some cheese, but as far as dips go, it is thick, creamy, and very scoopable.
Pair with: toasted baguettes, multigrain crackers, a cheese board

Spinach & Kale Greek Yogurt Dip

Like the other spinach dip, this dip isn’t mind-boggling, but a twist on the classic that only clocks in at 30 calories per serving. The kale adds a tiny bit more dimension to this otherwise regular dip. Put this out on game day and surely it will be consumed; there are just better dip options here.
Pair with: toasted baguette, fig & olive crisps, Everything but the Bagel crackers.

Tzatziki

Trader Joe’s does this classic condiment justice. It begins with a kefir cheese and sour cream base that’s filled with sliced cucumber, plenty of dill, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Use this dip as a side for a gyro plate.
Pair with: Dill pickle falafel, pita chips, organic naan crackers

Vegan Buffalo Dip

This is a very successful reinterpretation of Buffalo dip. It’s tangy and zesty, with all the qualities that make for a plant-based alternative to this classic. One critique is that once opened, it does tend to get watery fast, but the flavour is so good that if you bring this to a party, it likely won’t last very long.
Pair with: crostinis, golden cracker rounds, tortilla chips, celery sticks, carrots

Vegan Caramelized Onion Dip

This is not far off from the regular caramelized onion dip. The flavour is still sweet and savoury, there are large squares of perfectly browned onions in each bite, and the consistency is creamy. I would say it’s not quite as light and fluffy, like mousse, as the original-but the dairy-free cream cheese base is still a perfectly acceptable alternative.
Pair with: golden rounds crackers, potato chips, toasted baguette

Vegan Nacho Dip

Vegan cheese can be a hit or a miss, but Trader Joe’s succeeds here. This cashew-based dip is luxuriously creamy and has all the meltiness a regular nacho cheese would also possess. You won’t find grittiness here, but will find a flavour that has the desired saltiness that will impress vegans and non-vegans alike. Just make sure you don’t overheat the dip and stir constantly-like dairy cheese, it will split otherwise.
Pair with: tortilla chips, tacos, burritos, fries

Vegan Tzatziki Dip

I’m amazed at this vegan tzatziki dip. Trader Joe’s has truly found something special with its dairy-free, cream cheese base. This is just as tangy, dilly, and cucumber-filled as its yogurt counterpart, meaning it’s delicious.
Pair with: dill pickle falafel, pita chips, organic naan crackers

Zhoug Sauce

This Zhoug sauce is amazing. It’s herbaceous and fiery and flavorful-definitely the spiciest dip of the bunch. What I really love about it is how simple the ingredients are (only eight things in total!) and how they all work in tandem. Cilantro is undoubtedly the star, sure, but pops of cumin and cardamom paired with the heat of chile flakes and jalape├▒os really adds dimension to this Yemeni-inspired dip.
Pair with: eggs, garlic naan chips, organic corn dippers, or your favourite protein.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

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