LITTLE ROCK — Memphis and Texas have barbecue. Mississippi has fried chicken. Louisiana has, gosh, what doesn't Louisiana have when it comes to food?
But Arkansas, surrounded by these Southern foodie hot spots, has long been overshadowed by its neighbors. So, in an assertion of culinary pride, the state has tried to stake its claim as the home of a somewhat unlikely dish: cheese dip.
That queso you've eaten in a kitschy, Mexican-ish restaurant? Arkansas says it started here when a restaurant called Little Mexico opened in 1935 and introduced the dish.
Some Texans take issue with that claim, but whether Arkansas really gave rise to cheese dip seems beside the point. The snack has carved out its own place in Arkansas' culinary scene, somewhere near purple hull peas and pulled pork. The state hosts the World Cheese Dip Championship (though it's on hiatus this year) and boasts a cheese dip trail for tourists and locals seeking to sink tortilla chips into bowls of gooey, melted cheese.
Cheese dip, unlike its kirschwasser-infused cousin, fondue, is far from highbrow. But over the years, it has evolved into something a bit fancier than a bowl or crockpot of congealed cheese schlepped out during football season.
"It's gone way beyond the Velveeta-Rotel combination," said John McClure, the World Cheese Dip Championship's festival director.
Since the championship's inception in 2010, the festival has seen cheese dips featuring lobster, blackened crawfish, even vegan cheese.
Across Arkansas, the dish no longer is confined to Mexican restaurants. It's appetizer fodder for fancy burger joints and quirky cafes.
One of the most popular cheese dips can be found at Dizzy's Gypsy Bistro in downtown Little Rock. A few blocks from the city's namesake rock and Bill Clinton's presidential center, this eclectic restaurant puts a funky spin on cheese dip.
At first glance, their bechamel-based dip looks more like hummus than a bowl of queso. But the cheese is there, along with grilled peppers, pico de gallo, green onions, salsa and a dollop of sour cream. It's quite tasty, but far from a traditional cheese dip.
For that, head across town to one of Big Orange's two locations. They're known for gourmet burgers, quality draft beer and tempura asparagus, but their creamy cheese dip is a crowd-pleaser. (It's big enough to feed a crowd, too, so bring friends.) Fresh tortilla chips stand up to hunks of peppers and tomatoes in the dip.
Another thing: the cheese dip at Big Orange is yellow.
Cheese dip aficionados (yes, there are cheese dip aficionados) debate the merits of yellow cheese dips and white cheese dips.
All you need to know: They're both good because, in the end, they're both cheese.