For decades, a cheesy feud has raged between the neighboring towns of La Paz Centro and Naragote in Nicaragua—so bitter that local government officials and citizens of both towns have become infamous for their bickering. Insults are occasionally hurled on the buses between the two municipalities and the mayors of both cities have been known to round up hundreds of their people for media-heavy competitions.
Unlike more traditional wars, this isn’t over property, death, broken hearts, family, or even money. It’s over the birthplace of the quesillo—a simple corn tortilla wrapped around cheese and topped with pickled onions and cream. It’s served in a plastic bag, usually eaten on the go, and retails for around 40 cordobas apiece (or US $1.50).
Yes—two towns in Nicaragua are fighting over a cheese taco.
This taco is nothing fancy. The cheese is a string cheese with a texture similar to mozzarella. It’s a quick cheese, made from cow milk curds called cuajada or queso fresco. Ten liters of milk are needed to produce one kilogram of product. The only ingredients used are milk and rennet.
The most basic quesillo is called quesillo sencillo, which translates to “easy quesillo.” The cheese is flattened out like a thin crepe and then rolled up in a tube inside a fresh corn tortilla, pounded and roasted that morning. Diced onions marinated with spices and vinegar are folded inside, and then it’s all topped with a bit of cream. Then you have quesillo trenza, or braid. The difference lies in the cheese shape. Inside of being round flat and thin, two thick strands of cheese are braided together and then stuffed inside.
A quesillo is traditionally served in a flimsy plastic bag and paired with tiste, served in a cup made out of a fruit called jicaro. Tiste is a drink made with pure cacao, corn, sugar, cloves, and various spices. It’s like gritty chocolate milk with a cinnamon and a clove aftertaste.
“The quesillo is originally from La Paz Centro,” Pastora Hoya, an employee at Güiligüiste, tells me. “And then someone from La Paz Centro went over to Nagarote and started it there.” Güiligüiste is a quesillo restaurant in La Paz Centro, located right off the main highway. They are (arguably of course) the most popular quesillo restaurant in town. Hoya says Güiligüiste has been around since 1977.
Ten miles down the road in Nagarote, Juaua Cuarezma, an employee at Quesillo Acacia, gives me the exact opposite statement. She claims quesillo was invented in Nagarote and adds: “Actually, our owner Juana Dalilia used to own Güiligüiste, but she is originally from Nagarote.”
The most primitive version of quesillo reportedly surfaced in the early 1900s—nothing but cheese inside a tortilla. Back then, it was wrapped in plantain leaves instead of a plastic bag. According to local folklore, in the 1960s, Dalilia was the first to add cheese and pickled onions to the dish at Güiligüiste in La Paz, essentially creating the modern quesillo. Soon she sold her business and moved to Nagarote and eventually opened up Quesillo Acadia.
At Acadia, I ask customer Gersan Arauz for his opinion. The Nicaraguan native is on his way to the airport and has stopped by with his family for a quick bite to eat. He is convinced the quesillo originated from La Paz and adds that while it’s true that Dalilia used to owned Güiligüiste, she was in fact originally from La Paz Centro—not Naragote. His mom, who stands beside him listening to our conversation, nods in agreement.
“Quesillo Acacia here in Nagarote has the—in my humble opinion—best quesillo in Nicaragua,” he says.
My translator Juan Francisco Manzanares (who is related to the current owner at Güiligüiste) adamantly disagrees.
“It’s not a quesillo unless it comes from La Paz Centro,” Manzanares insists. “And Güiligüiste does the best version in all of Nicaragua.” He takes a bite of a quesillo sencillo at Acacia and shakes his head at the pickled onions. “Güiligüiste is better,” he says.
No one knows for sure which town invented the quesillo or who made it popular, but most folks agree that it’s been a Nicaraguan staple for more than a century. Both Güiligüiste and Acacia are located off their cities’ respective highways, but if walk past the city entrances and into their hearts, you’ll run into a handful of women selling quesillos off baskets on their heads. It is estimated that between 300 and 500 women commute daily to bus stops just in León to sell the dish; they’ll also sell it to commuters on the bus.
“It gets really nasty in the buses,” Cuarezma tells me. “The women will fight with each other and sometimes it gets personal.”
The feud extends past individual vendors; it’s also on a governmental level. In 2006, La Paz Centro launched a challenge to create the largest quesillo cheese braid. They managed to build it up to 106 meters with 1,100 gallon of milk. They supplemented it with 800 pounds of onions and 5,000 tortillas. Nagarote followed up with their own competition in 2011 for the largest round cheese. They clocked in at 2,000 pounds. La Paz rebutted with another braid competition in 2012 and doubled their previous record—hitting a delicious 200 meters.
Taste-wise, between the two cities, the differences are minimal. At Güiligüiste in La Paz, onions are cut into fine pieces and have more of an acidic kick to them. They’re also a hint of red, a result of what I suspect is chilies. Employees there refuse to divulge their secret.
Down the street at Acacia, the onions are thicker chunks, light brown, and more savory.
The cheese tastes the same at both places. It has a mild flavor and is rather subtle. But on a technical level, at Güiligüiste, salt is added to the curds before they are churned; at Acacia, it is not. Tortillas are fresher at Acacia, though both places make them from scratch.
It’s a very subjective argument, but it’s one that has generated a lot of pride for both towns and a reason to visit.
“We never figured out if the quesillo is from La Paz Centro or Nagarote,” I say to Manzanares after the day is over. We’re driving on the highway between La Paz and Nagarote. The two towns are separated by farmland, lots of cows, and—in the distance—a very active volcano.
“La Paz,” he says confidently. His allegiance is strong and unwavering. “All the other quesillos are imposters.”