Filed away in my mom’s recipe box are newspaper clippings and index cards, and going through them with her feels like gathering around an old photo album. There’s a lot of “Remember that?” and “I haven’t seen X in ages!”
I asked her to get it down for me the other day because I had spotted off-brand boxes of Velveeta at the grocery store. I’d kind of forgotten that Velveeta existed, but it was the basis of one of my family’s favorite meals, a deceptively simple affair of browned ground beef and cans of beans dumped in a pot with Ro-Tel tomatoes. The Velveeta went in at the end and it all melted into a glorious brownish glop known as creamed tacos.
We served it in bowls topped with tortilla chips and shredded lettuce; it was more of a cheesy chili than deconstructed tacos. For years I thought it was called “cream tacos.” But what it’s called doesn’t matter. It’s just good.
A True Texas Recipe, Kind Of
I’ve always thought of creamed tacos as mom’s recipe, but she actually got it from Janey Hays, whom my parents met in the late 1960s. As newlyweds, mom and dad headed from Ohio to the Air Force base in Laredo, Texas, where dad and a bunch of other cocksure young men had pilot training. Couples from all over the US lived on the base in unassuming concrete block houses; many of them formed deep friendships. They had loud parties with tons of food and free-flowing beer.
The Hayses were one of those couples on the base. Janey (or, as I later knew her, Mrs. Hays) was originally from Texas. All of the wives swapped recipes, and it was a time of thrilling culinary discovery for many of them. Mom had lived in Ohio her whole life and things like Tex-Mex enchiladas and Southern tomato pie were new to her. Meanwhile, she exposed her friends to their first cabbage rolls.
After pilot training, a bunch of those folks lost touch, but my parents managed to reconnect with a few couples through happenstance. In the 1980s, Mr. Hays’ company transferred him to Marietta, though they were oblivious that we lived there. They were house-hunting on my family’s street while the neighborhood kids and I played TV tag in our front yard one summer night. A strange man approached me and pointed to our mailbox, which had stick-on letters reading BIR. “Excuse me, but is your dad Jim Bir?” Who can blame him? It’s not a common name, but I probably just stared at him blankly. He wrote his name and number on a piece of paper and told me to give it to my parents.
The Hayses had a daughter my age and our families would get together from time to time. Mrs. Hays and my mom revived their recipe trading. That’s how creamed tacos came into our lives. As years passed, the Hayses moved and once again everyone slipped out of communication. Mrs. Hays, I think of you every time I drive past your old house.
A Filling, Super Easy Meal
I have no idea where Mrs. Hays initially got that creamed tacos recipe, but when my brother and I were kids, a school night that included creamed tacos was a cause for celebration. Probably for my working mom as well, since creamed tacos go from zero to table-ready in about 15 minutes.
Mom hasn’t made creamed tacos in years, in part because they are plausibly horrible for you. After mom dug out the recipe I made them for my daughter and her dad and remembered what the fuss was about. It’s essentially personal bowls of chili con queso for dinner. Who can say no to that?
How My Mom Modernized Creamed Tacos
Mom changed Mrs. Hays’ original recipe slightly. First of all, it calls for either a can or a brick of chili. (If you know what a brick of chili is, please tell me.) In any case, mom omitted the chili because the recipe is plenty hearty without it. You could even leave out the ground beef completely and add extra beans for a vegetarian dinner, or swap plant-based grounds.
Mrs. Hays also calls for a pint of half and half. Creamed tacos are quite rich and already a nutritional nightmare before you add half and half. So really what mom did was take an easy recipe and make it easier by leaving it out.
Speaking of, this is a fantastic meal for budding young cooks to make. I was probably 10 or 12 when I first made it, though you can bet I didn’t do a very good job of cleaning up.
How To Make Creamed Tacos
To make four to six servings, you’ll need:
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 (15.5-ounce) cans chili beans (do not drain)
- 1 (10 to 14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes and green chilies
- 1 pound processed cheese, such as Velveeta
- 1 to 2 teaspoons chili powder, optional
- Tortilla chips, for serving
- Shredded lettuce, for serving
- Diced tomatoes, for serving
Put the ground beef in a large pot, such as a 4 to 5-quart Dutch oven. Set it over medium heat and cook the ground beef, breaking it up into clumps, until it’s no longer pink. This’ll take 5 to 8 minutes. Drain off and discard most, but not all, of the fat.
Add the beans and canned tomatoes to the pot. Stir and let it come to a simmer.
Meanwhile, cut the cheese into big cubes. Once the pot is simmering, add the cheese. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir constantly until the cheese is totally melted—it won’t take long.
Reduce the heat to low or move the pot off the heat to prevent scorching your dinner. Taste a spoonful and add 1 or 2 teaspoons of chili powder if you think it needs more kick. (Be careful—this stuff is really salty, and there’s salt in the chili powder as well.)
We always serve creamed tacos super thick, so it really sticks to your ribs. But if yours is thicker than you’d like, add a little water or milk to get a slightly soupier consistency.
Ladle the creamed tacos into bowls and serve with tortilla chips, shredded lettuce, and fresh diced tomato as toppings. If you have leftovers, refrigerate them for up to four days. I’ve not tried freezing creamed tacos, but it’ll probably work pretty well.