A casserole dish filled with bubbling hot mac and cheese and topped with iridescent red Flamin' Hot Cheetos is placed before me. Everyone at the table leans forward, phones in hand, as we try to snap the bizarre entrée in front of us. It sits atop a table cloth of trompe l'oeil Cheetah fur, with an implication that is too dark to contemplate. From a nearby TV, a CGI Chester Cheetah greets guests by name so, thankfully, it's not his pelt we are dining on. A portrait of Chester, hangs on a wall complete with Cheetos wall paper, staring down at everything. I take a sip of my neon orange cocktail, gird myself, and dig in. And so begins my dining experience at Spotted Cheetah, the world’s first Cheetos-inspired restaurant.
Earlier in the evening, before I was introduced to Mac ‘n Cheetos and an array of other Cheetos-inspired dishes, I had posed a question to the fellow journalists at my table: What is it about Cheetos that garners such devoted fans? It seemed like an obvious question to ask at a multi-course meal featuring the cheese-dusted corn snack. But none of the answers were satisfactory.
“Anything made from corn is delicious,” someone pointed out. True, but lots of corn snacks, like Doritos and Fritos, have yet to yield pop-ups of their own.
Maybe the alchemy is less complicated — maybe Cheetos really are that good. Which could explain why the reaction to the news of the Spotted Cheetah’s three-night, pop-up restaurant in New York City was a race for tables instead of head-scratching confusion. (The waiting list has over 1,000 people on it and guests have included the Foodgød himself, Jonathan Cheban.) This would also explain why everyone I told where I would be going that night reacted with a kind of pained jealousy — like I had told them I was headed to the last restaurant on earth.
While the Spotted Cheetah is not the last eatery on earth, there is certainly no other establishment like it. To say every inch was dripped with Cheetos references would do a disservice to the fever dream that was being inside the joint. I can only guess here, but it might be comparable to eating a hallucinogen-laced cheese puff while thinking only of the color orange.
Anything and everything that could have a paw print or Cheetah spot on it did, including the bright orange toilet paper. Even the moist towelettes provided were on theme, in Cheetah spot-inspired dishes, instructing us to wipe our paws. It was a disorienting experience, and that’s before the food even arrived.
All the recipes came from celebrity chef Anne Burrell, and involved an array of Cheetos products, from classics to ones you might have forgotten about. (Cheetos Sweetos, anyone?) We started with an amuse bouche of grilled cheese and tomato soup containing three different kinds of Cheetos. Next was fried green tomatoes in a white cheddar Cheetos crust, and meatballs made with Cheetos crumbs and topped with a Cheetos garnish.
Our main courses, served family style, were Flamin’ Hot Mac ‘n Cheetos and Flamin’ Hot Limón Chicken Tacos, all also made with a dizzying mix of Cheetos dust, puffs, and crunches. Dessert, featuring a mix of savory and sugary Cheetos treats (cookies and crepes included), was perhaps the nadir. Though, to be fair, I was so overly stuffed at that point, any additional food would have seemed revolting, no matter how appealing.
Of the parade of dishes, the Purrfectly Fried Green Tomatoes had the most obvious Cheetos flavor without needing the aid of an additional Cheetos-y topping. The chips somehow managed to add a savory, cheesy crunch to a familiar summer classic, and managed to feel both refined and nostalgic.
The Mac ‘n Cheetos, sadly, was disappointing. Despite being made with cavatappi pasta, one of the funniest shapes to say and eat, the Cheetos-dust sauce tasted more like a classic béchamel. It was topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which seemed promising, but they were whole. A dust might have given the dish a satisfying crust, adding that familiar flavor in every bite. Instead, fully-sized Cheetos pieces were strewn across a food that really didn't need them there.
But, maybe the Spotted Cheetah restaurant was an impossible feat from the get-go. You can’t improve on perfection, and Cheetos, in their natural state, might just be perfect. After all that food, what I really wanted was a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. It’s doesn’t get better than that.
See more of the cheesy menu in the video below: