Arizona Cheese Crisp

I’ve been going through the Simply Recipes archives lately, updating recipes that seem a bit neglected and in need of a little love. Here’s one of my favorites from my mother—what she calls a “Sonoran Quesadilla,” known in Tucson, Arizona where they’re from as “cheese crisps”. Unlike our usual stove-top quesadilla made with corn or flour tortillas and jack cheese, cheese crisps are open-faced, and made with very large flour tortillas, that are toasted with butter and cheddar cheese, and often topped with strips of mild green chiles.

According to my Tucson-native mom, these open-faced quesadillas are made with especially large, thin, flour tortillas that you could find in Sonora, the northernmost state of Mexico. Typically they are served on a large platter, sometimes cut like a pie, for everyone to share.

They are crispy, buttery, and absolutely delicious.

The tortillas one uses to make cheese crisps are much thinner than the sturdy burrito-sized flour tortillas we found to make these. It just means we need to cook them a little longer to get them crispy. Don’t pile on the cheese too much; as with pizza, doing so will weigh down the result.

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Arizona Cheese Crisp Recipe

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: Makes one large Sonoran quesadilla

If you want to have green chiles on your quesadilla (they are optional), you can either roast your own (use Anaheims, Hatch, or Poblano) or use canned whole green chiles. To roast your own, blacken them over a gas stove, on a grill, or under a broiler, then put the chiles in a covered bowl for a few minutes, then rub off the blackened skin. (See How to Roast Chiles over a Gas Flame video.) Then de-seed them and cut them into strips.

Ingredients

  • One large, burrito-size (13-inch diameter or larger) flour tortilla
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 or 2 roasted green chiles, peeled, seeded, cut into strips (optional)

Method

Using the convection setting of your oven

1 Preheat your oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle. Place the flour tortilla on a large baking sheet (a dark baking sheet or cookie sheet will work best. Spread the butter all over the top of the tortilla, all the way to the edges. The butter is important for the flavor of a cheese crisp, so don't leave it out!

spread the flour tortilla all over with butter toast in oven until lightly browned

2 Cook the plain buttered tortilla for about 6 minutes or until it begins to get lightly toasted. (Check on the timing for your particular oven.)

sprinkle cheese and arrange chiles on toasted tortilla return tortilla to oven and toast for 2 more minutes

3 Remove the tortilla from the oven and sprinkle with the cheddar cheese, leaving about 1/2-inch from the edges. Add strips of green chiles in a star pattern if you want. Return the tortilla to the oven and cook for 2 more minutes, or until all of the cheese has melted. Remove from oven and eat!

My mother will use her oven's convection setting when she makes these cheese crisps. For convection, she'll put the buttered tortilla into a cold oven and heat on convection at 375°F for 7 to 10 minutes. Then she'll sprinkle the cheese and return the quesadilla to the oven for a couple more minutes.

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Links:

Flour Tortillas: Where they came from and how to make them

Quesadilla Recipe

Classic Cheese Crisps - from What's Gaby Cooking

Oven Toasted Sonoran Quesadilla

40 Comments

  1. Lisa

    I’m from AZ too but we call these “cheese crisps”. Just about every Mex restaurant has these on the menu. My favorite is the Mary Lou which is topped with sliced green onions and those green ortega chiles. You’re right about the tortillas. I can never find really thin ones here in TX. Usually, I just stick the tortilla under the broiler (no butter) to toast a bit, flip, add some cheese and broil again. Mmmmm……

  2. Lauren

    Oh, the memories! My dad would always have us order one of these when we went out for Mexican food when I was a kid in Tucson. They were his favorite.

  3. cjohnson

    I live here in Tucson, and for the most part, I have heard these referred to as “cheese crisps”. When cooking in the tortilla in the oven the first time, watch for bubbles forming. You might need to poke the tortilla down with a fork so that bubbles don’t take over the tortilla.

  4. charles

    Elise,
    This sounds wonderful. Just a note on the chiles…
    I planted anaheims this year, and they’re really producing! So the way I roast and skin them, is 5 mins under the broiler, turn, 5 more minutes. When they’re done, the skin is blistered, and about 60% blackened, but not totally blackened. Then I “sweat” them in a closed ziploc bag for 15 minutes. After that, the skins just peel right off.
    I never tried roasting / skinning them the way you mentioned, but I’ve got way more than I can eat, so maybe I’ll give it a shot.
    Thanks,
    Charles

  5. Roseann

    What great memories you sparked, Elise! As kids (growing up in Tucson!) we lived on these – standard lunch fare that our mom produced by the dozen (5 kids plus assorted friends all summer = usually 8 or more kids for lunch).

    Our gas barbeque grill does a good job of approximating the hot, dry heat of a convection oven.

    You’re right, too about the key to perfection is thin, crispy, browned (with just a bit of the cheese browning, too). Yum!

    (Where did your mom grow up and what schools did she attend? My husband and I are both natives – Tanque Verde area for me, Bear Canyon for him)

  6. Elise

    Regarding the name, in my mom’s day (the 40s and 50s) they were commonly known as Sonoran quesadillas. If you look up that term in Google, you can find them still on menus in Arizona.

    Hi Roseann – mom went to Sts. Peter and Paul elementary school. Eventually my grandparents moved to Phoenix so she finished high school there, not in Tucson.

  7. CLS

    I am from New Mexico and we use New Mexico style green chile — they have a bit more heat than the Anaheim chile. Another easy way to roast the chile is to use your gas grill. It is quick and easy and smells heavenly. Roast the chile on the grill, then let them sweat for a few minutes under a dishtowel and then peel. You can roast a bunch at a time and then put the rest in small freezer zip lock bags and you have excellent roasted chile for lots of different recipes throughout the rest of the year — for green chile stew, green chile chicken enchiladas. YUM.

  8. alleena

    I’m from New Mexico and lived in arizona for 5 years and I think another reason the thinner tortillas get crispier is they have a higher quantity of lard or shortening in them. I just love this. YOU are great!!

  9. Rebecca

    Here in Phoenix you can get traditional Sonoran tortillas at a little restaurant called Caroline’s in north Phoenix. They make them fresh everyday and they sell them by the dozen.

    My Great Grandmother lived in Tucson and she would toast torillas with just butter and we kids couldn’t get enough of them. Very fond memories. Thanks!

  10. Jill

    I too was born and raised in Southern Arizona (Phx & Tucson) and we knew them as “Cheese Crisps”. :o)
    Definately a “staple” in our diet. :o)

  11. Allison

    I like this recipe. very versatile. I made mine with habanero and sun-dried tomato tortillas and jack cheese. I found that if you use a liberal amount of butter, the tortillas won’t get black. Then I topped with jalapeños. It’s like one giant nacho.

  12. Mary

    I too, am a former Tucson native and fondly remember these cheese crisps…from Panchos on Grant and Casa Molina and Molinas Midway…yum!
    I also attended Sts Peter and Paul and then Salpointe.
    These days, when we to to Tucson, Mi Nidito is almost the first stop for some carne seca. Can’t get anything like that in Northern California; in fact, the “Mexican” food is different up here…I prefer my hometown’s
    Thanks for the recipe, I’ll give it a try.

  13. Ken

    Elise,
    I have been viewing your site for some time now and this is my first comment on any of your recipes. I grew up in Glendale and remember these from school and home as a kid. I remember these as Cheese Crisps. At least that’s what the school called them, and that’s what I and my friends knew them as.

    I hadn’t actually thought of these in a long time, and haven’t made them since I moved to Central NY. It’s nearly impossible to get good tortillas here. As a matter of fact, it’s even harder to find any decent hispanic products.

    Thanks for the memory flashback and I look forward to more of your mexican recipes.

    BTW, do you happen to have any good places that I can order traditional products?

  14. Heather

    Just a thought – although Trader Joes “truly handmade” tortillas taste wonderful, they also have a large burrito-style tortilla that is super-thin, and they become shatteringly crispy! Here’s our tried & true method:
    *Turn oven to 500 bake.
    *Canola Oil Spray on the cookie sheet and on the bottom of the tortilla. (Truthfully, CRISCO makes a new spray that works like majic on these)
    *Lay the tortilla on the cookie sheet
    *Spread two tbsp of Tomatillo Salsa (TJ’s again) in a thin layer over tortilla
    *Sprinkle with Quatro Formaggio (Tj’s) – I know its not Mexican, but strangely has the salty flavors of Queso Asedero & really compliments.
    *Place cookie sheet on BOTTOM rack, closest to the element for about 3-4 minutes. Tortilla will crisp, bubble and start to brown.
    *Switch oven to broil & place on top rack, near top element & broil for 1-2 minutes, until golden brown.
    Use a pizza cutter to shatter through the tortilla. Top with sour cream & avocado slices. YUM!!!!
    We’ve also experimented with pizza toppings, artichoke tapenade…you name it.

  15. Carolyn

    I *highly* recommend using a whole wheat tortilla with this recipe. I am a white bread lover, but if you can find a real, whole wheat type tortilla, it’s actually much tastier than using a flour or semi-wheat tortilla!
    –From C stuck in Tucson.—

  16. nikki jo

    I LOVE IT! Cheese crisp! I’m always arguing with my co workers (i work at a country club) about how a quesidilla is folded over and a cheese crisp is left open face. However I put butter on the tortilla than cheese and stick it in the oven. YUM! I love thin torillas and can not find the in new mexico. However Igo to douglas, or elfrida arizona and buy some!

  17. Amanda

    Growing up in PHX and then living 7 years in Tucson, I always thought “cheese crisps” were essential to any Mexican Menu. However, now that I live in Jacksonville, FL (besides the fact that the Mexican food is horrible) I asked for a cheese crisp and they looked at me like I was crazy. My husband and I were very home sick at the realization that no restaurant has them on their menu….thank you for this recipe and all the Sonoran Mexican food recipes because now I make them at home to bring back “home”. I make this recipe a little lower in fat by using the zero calorie spay butter….works like a charm.

    • David

      Anywhere outside of the Sonoran desert, you’ll get the crazy look.

      I’ve been in Phoenix since ’73 and never heard them called any kind of quesadilla. An “open faced quesadilla” is only used to describe them to people that don’t know what they are.

  18. helen

    I am from Hermosillo, Sonora, we now use Cheddar cheese, but 40 years ago we did not get Cheddar cheese in Mexico, we make this with Chihuahua (Jack cheese), and use freshly made tortillas, which we can get almost every where, a lot of women make them and sell them out of the comal….. delicious!, and we roast the Anaheim chilies on the stove top, toss them in a plastic bag to sweat 10 minutes, and rinse them to peel them off easily.

  19. JayhawkMom

    These are very similar to something I grew up with…they were a fried flat tortilla with cheese, hot sauce and taco meat. My parents first ate them at a restaurant called The Green Door in Arkansas City, Kansas, where they were referred to as quesadillas. (Don’t laugh! That area of Kansas actually has tons of people with a Mexican background…how it ever got turned into a “quesadilla” I don’t know.) Now I know that they were more like a tostada, but that was so ingrained in me that when I moved to San Diego, I couldn’t understand these un-fried, folded-over things that were being presented to me. :-)

    Either way, these look super yummy!

  20. Kevin

    Thank you, I forgot how to make these the right way…with butter!

    I also lived in Tucson as a little boy and that was the only food I can remember. In Calif Mom made these all the time when I wanted a snack but somewhere along the line, I dropped the butter to be more “healty”.

    I just made one last night and totaly forgot how the butter makes them puff up and crispy. To think, I have missed so many good Sonora Quesadillas for last 30 years!

  21. tchudson

    Used to live in Tucson and would get these all the time! Love them! Tried making them at home, but didn’t realize they had butter on them, so they didn’t taste anywhere close….

  22. Dollie Kincheloe

    My husband and I lived in Phoenix for ten years and absolutely loved the Sonoran restaurant called Valle Luna. All their dishes are fabulous and no one can beat their salsa. Now that we live in Utah we simply cannot find a Mexican restaurant that even comes close to the Sonoran style. We always recommend Valle Luna to people who travel to Phoenix and they too say it is the best they’ve tasted. I wish someone would post an authentic Sonoran style recipe for Pollo Fundido, Fajitas, or any of the Burros. Yum Yum

  23. Carrie

    My mom is originally from Tombstone. She made ‘cheese crisps’ for us growing up and now we serve them. Tortillas, cheddar cheese, and butter is, in our house, the ultimate comfort food.

  24. Robert Johnson

    There is no place better than Southern Arizona for good food! I love cheese crisps but the newest biggest thing is sonoran dogs. I just wish some of this stuff was healthy!

  25. Collin

    I was just telling the wife about getting these at the OLD “Panchos” or “Casa Molina” restaurants & talked myself into making them for dinner w / beans & rice for the fam. I googled “cheese crisps” recipes & what memories it brought back. Yes I’m a fellow Tucsonian! Went to Amphi, then Rincon. Great to see I’m not the only one who remembers these! LOVE YOU T-TOWN!!!

  26. Michael

    I grew up in Tuscon, AZ in the Tanque Verde / Bear Canyon area and the absolute best “Cheese Crisp” I have ever had in my life was from the original Casa Molina on Speedway and Wilmont. My parents took me there from the age of 2 and continued until I left to join the Air Force. I have been numerous places over the years but I will never forget the absolute love for their cheese crisps, even better when topped with Hatch green chiles…..yummy! Thanks for the recipe.

  27. Rae

    I grew up and currently live in Phoenix. I had moved to OH for a while and when I moved back with my husband, I talked him into trying a cheese crisp. He loves them and is trying to figure out how to make his own. Thanks so much for the recipe!

  28. Renee

    My kids are going to love these! We only have little tortillas on hand, but I think they will still get crispy with the butter.

  29. barb

    made these the very day I got my Hatch chiles…………always something to look forward to in the Fall.

  30. Carol Pahl

    30 years ago I ate these Cheese Crisps at a Mexican restaurant in Willimantic, Connecticut almost every day because they were so good and if I remember right, I could get one for about $2. The restaurant didn’t last long, but the memories did. I have never been able to recreate them and for 30 years I longed for cheese crisps thinking that they must have been a creation of this particular restaurant and I would never have them again. I have just read this post…I am making them tomorrow. Maybe for breakfast.

  31. Laura

    I had never heard of these before reading of them here. I tried one (8″ whole wheat) with just the cheddar. Then one with cheddar and homemade slightly chunky sweet applesauce added after cooking (think apple pie with a slice of cheddar). Then one with half shredded cheddar and half mozzarella (YUM). Now, with the mixed cheeses, I have begun to add toppings. I have learned that cheese crisps are very versatile and can be very delicious. I appreciate learning about these. Thanks Elise!

  32. Andrea

    Wow, you have a lot of Tucson readers! I’m also from Tucson and have to chime in on all the other comments about the huge, delicious cheese crisps at Casa Molina. We ordered ours with fresh tomatoes and green chiles added. Cheese crisps were our standard after-school snack while growing up. I moved to Phoenix after college and was surprised that they’re referred to as quesadilllas here. Who knew there was such a difference just a couple of hours away!

  33. Ginger

    I live in Tucson and have for years and this is ALWAYS what we order to snack on before our meal. I actually didn’t know how they make them but at home i just use a large hot skillet that has just a tiny bit of oil and i add cheese and green chilis to the tortilla and cook in the skillet untill crisp and the cheese is melted. So good.

  34. Monique

    Oh the memories of eating these delicious, extremely thin tortillas topped with cheese is wonderful. I grew up in Tucson and loved these. It is truly difficult to find the paper thin tortillas of my childhood, but I will definitely replicate this recipe. Thank you!

  35. Courtenay

    I grew up in Arizona and this was my absolute favorite food in the universe! Some people crave mashed potatoes or Mac and cheese for their comfort foods, but the cheese crisp is mine!

  36. Jan M

    Lived in Tucson and worked at the “Spanish Trail”. Many nights after closing we went to a resturant on South 4th and had Cheese Crisps, what memories you have presented. I think about them a lot, took the kids to Mi Nidito as often as we could. Loved it as well as Casa Molina. Now live in Florida and miss Arizona and all that good food even after 35 years. Many thanks for this site and all the comments.

  37. Kate @¡Hola! Jalapeño

    Oh yum! I saw this and just had to click! What a great idea, I know my kids would especially love this!

  38. Vicki Albright

    Oh, Elise, you have made my day! I was posting on another board about Tucson and the ol’ days, and how my dad would bring us home a “Crispy Quesadilla” (I did not remember calling it a cheese crisp – it was more than 50 years ago!) and had just come to the conclusion, the restaurant’s name was Pancho’s – and now I have the recipe and cannot wait to make it for my kids and grandkids! Thank you SO much!

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