Queso Critique – Chili’s part 2: The Sequel

For anyone who may not know, my same-named cheese friend Amanda and I taste-test chips and queso at different restaurants in the Austin, Texas, area. We judge the melty cheese on its consistency and flavor, and give it a score between 0 and 5.

In my previous review, I seethed about the disappointing injustice that was Chili’s Skillet Queso. Oops, sorry – meant to call it Skillet Meat Stuff, because it did not appear to contain any actual dairy products.

After eating that dish, my partner and I were feeling pretty confused and upset, so we decided to order Chili’s White Spinach Queso, hoping that it would soothe our raw nerves. And also wash out the taste of the previous attempt.

I admit I was a teensy bit nervous about this order, because: 1. I don’t really care much for cooked spinach, and 2. I had already been gravely disappointed by the Skillet Queso Meat Stuff. I just wasn’t sure my heart could take any more pain.

We needed to brie careful.

The waiter brought out our second vessel of goodness, awkwardly informing us that he’d “just set it next to the other queso.” We breathed sighs of relief that this one already looked much more attractive than its predecessor had. It was made from Monterey Jack cheese, with a dollop of guacamole and a smattering of pico de gallo on top.

This one bared no resemblance to a dirty diaper – neither in color nor texture.

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With shaky courage, we plunged our chips into the new queso and shoved them into our mouths before we could change our minds.

My first thought was: Mucchhhhhhhh better.

This one actually tasted like cheese, which I used to think was an obvious GIVEN in a dish called “queso,” but have since learned not to take for granted. The texture also had a gooey thickness to it, which we highly appreciated. I’m a big fan of Chili’s thin tortilla chips, but something a bit more durable is definitely needed for this type of queso.

Although we were initially delighted about the add-ons of guacamole and pico, we did notice that these items were less than fresh, and were not terribly flavorful. Taste-wise, they really didn’t add anything extra to the dish. I also realized that I could barely taste the spinach, which for me, was a great thing – but I’m not sure that’s what Chili’s is aiming for.

After a minute or two of deliberation, we gave the White Spinach Queso a score of 3 – solidly good, even excelled in the level of cheesiness, but the lack of spice or other flavors were a bit of a letdown.

All in all, this queso was clearly the superior bowl of cheese at Chili’s… which, unfortunately, isn’t saying much.

The reason for the cheesin’

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Queso Critique – Billy’s on Burnet

Billy’s on Burnet – Austin, TX

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Notice the child attempting to photobomb

You know a food is delicious when you find yourself dipping other foods into that food in order to make the other foods more delicious.

If that sentence made sense to you, then you get me. Here, have an Internet high-five!

For anyone who may not know, I (along with my friend and work wife Amanda) taste-test chips & queso at different restaurants in the Austin, Texas, area. We judge the melty cheese on its consistency and flavor, and give it a score between 1 and 10.

It’s a tricky job, but somebody’s gouda do it. And you cheddar believe it.

(That’s right. Just let the cheese puns wash over you.)

Anyway, after accidentally stumbling upon Billy’s website and learning that the restaurant indeed offers queso, Amanda and I decided to make it our next destination, so we headed there on Saturday afternoon with her two kids. The restaurant had both an indoor and outdoor “scene,” but given that it was 75 and sunny out, the inside was looking pretty lonely and unused.

Poor inside. Everything just tastes better outdoors.

We ordered our drinks and snacks (including a family-sized queso and an order of fried cheese curds, because we have a problem), and found an empty picnic table on the patio.

The four of us agreed that the queso had a nice, creamy consistency – thick enough to cling to your chip, but not so thick as to be difficult to scoop. It didn’t contain any special ingredients, just straight-up cheese and chilies, but it had a mild spice to it that helped with the flavor department.

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Chips & Queso hanging out with their buddy, fried cheese curds

It was a simple, no-bells-and-whistles (but nonetheless tasty) queso. We awarded it a 6.8 (Revised Score: 2.5).

Amanda and I reached the ground-breaking conclusion that a 6.8 is a good “baseline” score.  So far, any queso that has scored below this has had something fundamentally wrong with it, whether it was too thin, or severely lacking in spice, or hardened too quickly. A 6.8 reflects a dish that has no real problems, but is also nothing fancy.

It’s just a reliable bowl of melted cheese.

A reliable bowl of melted cheese that we couldn’t seem to stop dipping other foods in – hence the first sentence of this post. We tried it with chips, fries, chicken strips, and…okay….maybe a fried cheese curd or two. I’m not even sorry.

Also, after getting our fill of salt, it was time to balance it out with some sugar from a little place across the street – a bakery aptly named Tiny Pies.

Queso Criteria

Billy’s on Burnet website

Tiny Pies website

Queso Critique – Texican Café

Texican Café – Austin, Texas

On Valentine’s Day Eve, Amanda and I journeyed through 5 o’clock traffic to get to the Texican Café, an award-winning restaurant known for using spices and flavors unique to El Paso and Mexico. Interestingly, this café was located just down the street from our current queso front-runner, Sazón.

Neighbors in delicious competition.

The timing of our outing was perfect, as it was roughly a year ago that Amanda and I enthusiastically declared our affection for each other as “work wives” – to the slight discomfort of a few of our other coworkers. When you spend so many hours of your day at work, it’s comforting to have someone you can laugh with, vent to, and conspire with. And sometimes, these coworker relationships become strangely marriage-like in their level of support and camaraderie.

So basically, this dinner served as our work-wife anniversary celebration. Or at least the anniversary of our “engagement,” as there hasn’t been a formal wedding. Yet.

After toasting each other with absurdly large alcoholic drinks, the wife and I agreed to order the Queso Flameado, a blend of chorizo and white cheese broiled to perfection in a hot skillet – and then served with homemade corn and flour tortillas. Oh, yes.

 

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The restaurant’s low lighting makes this picture seem strangely sensual.

Right away, we learned a valuable lesson: this dish is not to be recommended for date night. As we used our spoons to scoop up the queso, long strands of cheese followed behind, forcing us to use our fingers to help the process along. At one point, Amanda accidentally dropped a dollop of cheese onto her napkin, and then proceeded to pop it in her mouth like nothing had happened.

I found it charming, but others may disagree.

Another less-than-romantic discovery was that the dish was very, very greasy in a way that previous broiled quesos have not been. Both of us ended up with small puddles on our plates, which we found a teensy bit…gross.

grease

Now, on to the good stuff: the Queso Flameado was intensely, deliciously cheesy. Months ago, we stated in our Queso Criteria that we wanted to be “punched in the face with cheese,” and this dish was certainly up to that challenge. Normally, I want to gobble down as much queso as I can get, but this was one of those cases where less was more – and not at all in a bad way. It was so rich and flavorful, that I could only eat a tortilla and a half before surrendering.

We also appreciated that the chorizo was cut into smaller pieces, which allowed us to more quickly and efficiently scoop it into tortillas. While we’re on the subject of the carb vehicles, Amanda expressed a preference for the corn tortillas, but I was a bit more fond of the flour ones.

Sometimes disagreements happen in a marriage.

When it came time for rating, we both felt that the Queso Flameado deserved a better score than a 9, but the greasiness held us back from giving it a 9.5 – which would have tied it with the current leader.

Therefore, we gave this one a slightly arbitrary fabulous 9.2 (Revised score: 4.2)

Texican Cafe’s website

Queso Critique: Jack Allen’s Kitchen

Jack Allen’s Kitchen (Austin)

Sometimes, it’s nice to take an entire week off of work and go to the beach. But when that’s not possible, it’s still pretty good to take half a day off and try a new queso.

For this occasion, it was Amanda’s restaurant of choice, and she selected Jack Allen’s Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant in southwest Austin. We elected to sit on the patio, which was enclosed and heated to protect us from the harsh, harsh winters of central Texas. It was all toasty and cozy out there, like being back in the womb.

Or something less creepy.

As a side note, we decided that our waitress, with her curly red hair and light eyes, looked like a real-life version of Merida from Brave. She should definitely put aside whatever respectable career/vocational goals she has and just be a Disney princess. Livin’ the dream.

Anyway, after taking our drink order, “Merida” (because we can’t remember her real name) brought us a complimentary sample of the house-made pimiento cheese with crackers. I wish I could say we were given free food because we’re world-famous queso critics, but that’d be a lie: they give samples to all restaurant peasants… er, patrons.

Regardless, it was BONUS CHEESE. And was very good.

I was strangely surprised that the menu only offers one type of queso – we’ve definitely been spoiled by so many restaurants offering multiple variants of the spicey cheese. Nevertheless, the Carl Miller’s Layered Chunky Queso came with guacamole and green chile pork, which made us happy ladies.

You might say that meat-filled quesos have become quite imporktant to us. Sorry I’m not sorry.

Similar to the Smoked Pork Queso at the River City Grille, this queso had a thinner-than-usual consistency, most likely from the meat juices, but was fortunately not dripping-down-your-chin liquidy. There wasn’t a lot of spice, but enough was there to give it a nice flavor.

The crème de la crème of this dish was easily the pork. Much of it was so finely shredded and cooked down that you couldn’t really taste it separately from the cheese – BUT the bigger pieces, the “chunky” aspect of the dish’s name, were wonderfully tender and flavorful. Admittedly, it was a little challenging to scoop the pieces up with the chips, but sometimes, you just have to be willing to put in some work. We gave the Layered Chunky Queso an honorable 8.5 out of 10! (Revised score: 3.5).

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Carl Miller’s Layered Chunky Queso from Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Austin

Queso Criteria

website for Jack Allen’s Kitchen

What’s the Opposite of Decorating?

Today, I forced myself to do something that was necessary, but completely awful. Torturous, even.

I finally put away Christmas decorations and took down my tree.

…Am I the only one who finds this task incredibly depressing?

In late November, like many others, I so look forward to dragging out the torn and tattered boxes of decorations. I listen to Christmas music and sip hot chocolate while lovingly finding homes for each little trinket. It’s a comforting ritual.

And the best part is, for over a month, I get to enjoy the sight of my lit-up tree with presents underneath, in all of their glistening and glittery glory. Nothing gets me in the holiday mood faster.

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Unfortunately, while getting the ornaments out is loads of fun, putting them away comes with no fanfare. You spend all that time and effort, neatly balling up the lights, re-wrapping ornaments in tissue paper, and what do you get?

A home that looks way less festive than it did an hour ago, and a reminder that the next Christmas is a super long time away.

And that’s just sad.

undecoratingcard

I almost feel sorry for the process of putting away decorations, because it’s gotten a pretty bad rap and clearly no one likes it that much. What do you even call this procedure? Is there an antonym for “decorating”? Undecorating? Anti-decorating?

Since it’s such a melancholy task, I came up with some ideas for making this ritual a little less soul-crushing, and a little more interesting.

Ways to Make the Undecorating Process More Fun:

• Do everything blindfolded!
Blindly fumbling around for the ornaments is bound to be entertaining for all involved. However, you’re disqualified if you break that extremely fragile one that your grandma gave you when you were a baby. That’s not cool.

• Put things away without using your hands!
Pretend that you lost your hands to a rare flesh-eating bacteria, or some other horrific event, and you’re now forced to use other body parts for tasks. Imagine reaching for a delicate ornament with your toes, or removing a string of lights with your elbows. Hilarity ensues.

• Turn it into a drinking game!

undecoratinggame1

• Leave the tree out, and decorate it with non-Christmas items!
Personally, I like the idea of finding old pictures of past presidents and sticking them all over the tree. Voila! Early President’s Day décor! Bonus points if you sing “O President’s Tree” while doing this.

Maybe one of these suggestions will become the next big holiday tradition! (Much like the Santa Gremlin.) Or perhaps you and your family will come up with your very own little ritual. Either way, It’s about time that we make “undecorating” just as fun as decorating!

Okay, maybe not as fun, but at least not as terrible.

Side Note: Out of curiosity, I googled, “Antonyms of decoration” and one of the results was “Eyesore.” Seems fitting.

 

Queso Critique: River City Grille, part 2

River City Grille (Marble Falls)

We heard through the grapevine (or the internet) that the River City Grille was offering a new queso on their menu. We had already tried their  Green Chile Queso a couple months ago and had given it a respectable rating, so we were willing to give the new one a shot – especially since it involved smoked pork. Because Texas.

Amanda and I showed up to the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, which means that neither of us had on makeup or real pants. But it’s okay, because queso loves you no matter how you look. Queso never judges.

One of the things we had enjoyed about the  Green Chile Queso at our last visit was the creamy texture, though we’d actually found the consistency just a bit too thick. Keeping that in mind, it was surprising to us when the Smoked Pork Queso arrived looking much more…liquidy. And drippy.

Nothing says sophistication like cheese running down your chin.

After several bites of the queso, we realized that neither of us had gotten any pork yet, and we theorized that the meat had fallen to the bottom of the bowl. Amanda also wisely guessed that the juices from the pork might be the culprit of the thin consistency.

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We sent the chips on a diving expedition to get to the meat, and were saddened to discover that there was very little in the dish at all. The few bites of queso we managed to get with pork were delicious, but in agonizingly short supply.

We settled on a score of 6.5 (Revised score: 2.3) for the Smoked Pork Queso, which is actually a little lower than the rating we gave to the Green Chile Queso. This new one had good flavor, but an extreme lack of meat and a too-thin consistency unfortunately brought the score down.

River City Grille’s website

Queso criteria

In-Laws and Mace

As an unmarried person, I’m lucky to be spared the horror of in-laws visiting my cozy little home and making life uncomfortable.

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However, one of my friends recently faced this unfortunate circumstance. I watched her stress about getting her house cleaned, cooking meals her in-laws would like, and holding her tongue during controversial conversations.

As an attempt to cheer her – and the rest of you married folk – up, I wrote (and semi-plagiarized) this little ditty.

Sing to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”

First I was afraid,
I was petrified.
About my in-laws coming to stay for four long nights.
But then I spent so many hours
Knocking back bottles of booze,
I put down my noose.
‘Cause I had nothing left to lose!

And so I schmoozed
With my in-laws.
We talked religion and politics,
And I had to hold back my claws.
I had to set a good example,
So I kept a smile on my face.
But what I really wanted to do
Was spray everyone with mace!

“Go on now, go – walk out the door!
Just turn around now
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore!”
Oh, how I’d love to say these things to them,
But I’ll keep them to myself,
…and have another glass of gin!

Somehow I will,
I will survive.
If I have to hide in the bathroom,
At least I’ll stay alive.
I’ve got all my life to live
I’ve got no fucks left to give
I will survive!
I will survive!

Queso Critique: Angel’s Icehouse

Angel’s Icehouse (Spicewood)

On a Friday night after work, we made the drive to Angel’s Icehouse in Spicewood. Angel’s is mostly set outdoors, with picnic-style tables scattered around on the deck and grounds. The place appeared to be very popular with families – kids climbed all over a playground while the adults kicked back with drinks. There were even a couple of dogs lazily hanging out with their owners. It was very central Texas.

With a live band performing, this place had a fun and casual atmosphere. And most importantly, the restaurant served queso.

We were once again pleased to discover that the menu offered not one, not two, but THREE different types of queso. Seriously, all these places that offer more than one option of queso just make my cheese-loving heart so happy. It wasn’t hard for us to agree on the Supreme Queso, which came with guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and taco meat.

Be still, my heart.

Given that it was past seven and neither of us had eaten lunch, we basically devoured the queso as it soon it was set in front of us. For a long time, there was a lot of dipping and chewing, and very little talking. It wasn’t pretty. When we slowed down enough to speak, we gave thumbs up for the queso’s deliciously cheesy and spicy flavors. The texture was also quite creamy, and didn’t harden as it cooled.

It was a bit tougher than usual for us to come to an agreed-upon score; one of us was leaning toward a 9, while the other was thinking more of an 8.5. It may sound silly that we felt hung up on half a point, but cheese judging has become a pretty solemn affair for us.

Finally, we decided on an 8.5 (revised: 3.5). The Supreme Queso earned bonus points for the extra ingredients, but we agreed that the use of taco meat, while tasty, was just not as satisfying as something like chorizo might have been. Still, a job well done, Angel’s!

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Deliciousness in a bowl

Angel’s website

Queso Critique: R Bar & Grill

R Bar & Grill (Marble Falls)

We were ready to rate another Marble Falls queso, and this time, we headed to a little bar downtown. The R Bar & Grill is very laid-back and pet-friendly – the kind of place where you can easily kill a couple hours drinking, snacking, and chatting. A hand weight had savagely attacked Amanda’s foot and fractured her toe earlier in the week, so we got her foot propped up in an extra chair and set about getting our sedatives queso ordered.

The queso arrived looking attractively cheesy, but in a disappointingly small container. (Let’s just say, Amanda and I can put away a concerning and unhealthy amount of melted cheese.) We plopped our chips in and got to crunching. The flavor had a nice mix of cheesiness and spice, and initially had a very smooth consistency; unfortunately, after several minutes of dipping, the texture hardened, and several chips were broken in the process.

We gave the R Bar & Grill’s queso a respectable 6 (revised: 2), BUT we should point out that we enjoyed the queso enough to order some tacos which, coincidentally, also came with queso on them. (I know – we have a problem.)

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R Bar & Grill’s website

 

Queso Critique: Barriba Cantina

Barriba Cantina (San Antonio)

In the middle of July, Amanda and I decided that a mini-vacation was in order. San Antonio was the perfect location – far enough to feel like we were truly “getting away,” but not so far that we’d have to take time off work. We met Amanda’s sister, Katrina, in downtown San Antonio for a weekend of sun and fun.

On our last night there, the three of us got dressed up and took a scenic stroll along the riverwalk, in search of delicious foodstuffs. Eventually (and with the help of the internet), we stumbled upon Barriba Cantina. The outdoor patio had a beautiful view of the river, but we elected to sit inside and enjoy the live band.

The music was loud and the atmosphere energetic. We were ready for cheese.

The menu offered two different types of queso – a choice that has been challenging and emotional every time. I mean, it’s like choosing between your children. We cheerfully opted for the Queso Deluxe, mainly because it came with all the major food groups piled into one bowl – 1. cheese, 2. chorizo and 3. vegetables (guacamole and pico de gallo). The only missing food group was bacon.

(That’s how the food pyramid works, right?)

This queso was about as delicious as it gets. Even Katrina, who maybe doesn’t obsess over queso quite as much as Amanda and I do, loved it. The flavors of the chorizo and spices were amazing, yet somehow didn’t diminish the sheer cheesiness of the dish. With all those ingredients squished into one container, we all expected the consistency to eventually get too thick, but it was pretty much perfect; even after cooling, we could still scoop it up without breaking any chips. We happily and enthusiastically gave the Queso Deluxe a 9 (Revised: 4).

Barriba Cantina’s website

queso criteria