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).

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

Queso Criteria

website for Jack Allen’s Kitchen

Cake It Up, part 2: The Music Video

Soon after writing the carb-loving song featured in part 1 of  Cake It Up, I quickly and irrationally developed a dream of turning it into a music video. I pictured humans dressed as various food items, merrily singing the lyrics in unison.

While also performing some choreographed dance moves. Or maybe break-dancing.

musicvid5
Just look at these people. Look how happy they are.

I’m so grateful to have friends who not only share my enthusiasm for food, but also indulge me in my odd daydreams by volunteering to be the dancing foods.

Now that’s friendship.

And as we all know, jokingly offering to do something is legally binding in the state of Texas. Which means I’m holding you to this, people.

Therefore, WHEN (not if) this song becomes a music video, you will see these fine people portraying these fine foods:

Kim – a frighteningly large piece of chocolate cake – not because Kim is large, but because the cakes we devour are. If possible, her costume would involve a scoop of ice cream as well, because we like to combine multiple desserts into one. We’re efficient that way.

musicvid3
This one is way cuter than I envisioned it.

Amanda: Not surprisingly, I see my fellow cheese-judger dressed as a bowl of queso, perhaps surrounded by tortilla chips. I’m a little concerned that this costume might be a bit cumbersome to walk in, let alone dance in, but Amanda’s mostly coordinated, so I’m sure she’ll do fine! Or she won’t. But either way it’s okay, because seeing a falling bowl of human queso would be entertaining all on its own.

musicvid4

Haylee – a roll of raw cookie dough, plain and simple. Maybe with a chocolate chip hat. We’re courageous souls, unfazed by fears of salmonella.

musicvid1

Heather – definitely a bowl of macaroni and cheese, in honor of our favorite (okay, only) dorm meal in college. Preferably, she’d be of the Velveeta Shells & Cheese variety. Only the finest of brands for my friends!

musicvid2

I’m not quite sure yet how any of these costumes will get created. I’m pretty crafty, but I have next to no sewing skills. If you have expert sewing ability and would like to get involved in a weird project for no pay, you know who to contact!

…Actually, if you know anything about choreography or filming music videos, that’d be helpful, too.

I’ll even put your name in the credits of my music video.

 

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.

mostintman1

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

Queso Critique: Torchy’s Tacos

Torchy’s Tacos (Austin)

‘Twas two days before Thanksgiving, and the Amandas were experiencing cheese withdrawals.

Torchy’s, an institution known for unique and delicious tacos, was the next logical destination. The chain started as a food truck in south Austin, but has spread like wildfire to different cities throughout Texas, and I can see why – any place that puts fried chicken in a flour tortilla gets a thumbs-up in my book. Amanda’s children and her father, who was in town for the holidays, joined us for the serious business of cheese judging.

Torchy’s was packed when we arrived, but we were lucky enough to find an empty table on the patio. Typical of a Texas November, the weather was cool, but very pleasant: perfect for the sweaty work of eating Mexican food.

Immediately upon ordering, we were given our vessel of Green Chile Queso, accompanied by the restaurant’s homemade tortilla chips. The five of us wasted no time digging in. The texture of the queso was deliciously smooth and thick, desperately clinging to the chips like a lifesaver, which was a little ironic, considering the chips were merely the automobile to get the queso in our mouths.


We gave Torchy’s a solid 8.5 rating (revised: 3.5), mainly for the clever and tasty add-ons they drop into the dish – green chilies, guacamole, and cilantro gave the cheesiness an extra kick of flavor. It was also very spicy, thanks to a healthy amount of hot sauce. I’d been battling a cold, and the heat of this queso actually helped – which is just further proof that cheese can be medicinal.

Unfortunately, we were too busy stuffing our faces to remember to take a picture of the queso. Instead, you can admire this mug that a coworker gave me. She understands me.
mug1   mug2

Torchy’s website

Queso criteria

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!

queso1
Deliciousness in a bowl

Angel’s website

Queso Critique: Guero’s

Guero’s (Austin)

This time, it was my turn to celebrate a birthday. Hungry for a little excitement (and cheese, obviously), Amanda and I decided to take the day off work and spend the afternoon on South Congress in Austin. The area is full of delicious restaurants and unique (okay, strange) shops, which was right up our alley. We agreed that spicy cheese would need to be an important part of the celebration, so we planned ahead and found Guero’s, a popular queso-serving restaurant in the heart of South Congress.

After getting our margaritas ordered (because birthday!), we opened our menus and carefully considered which one of the two quesos to eat. The Chile Con Queso sounded like your standard chip-dipping fare, and there was also a Queso Flameado, which sounded similar to the one we tried at Sazón. Traditional choices like the Chile Con Queso are sometimes the best ones, but the other option included the word “flame” in the name, which we quite liked. Who doesn’t want their food to involve fire?

It was a heart-wrenching choice, but we finally settled on the Chile Con Queso. Right away, we were in agreement that the queso was wonderfully cheesy and had a nice consistency – not too liquidy, and not too thick. Disappointingly, however, it had no spice. As stated in previous critiques, we expect a little zing – especially when we’re at a Tex-Mex place.

For those reasons, we gave the Chile Con Queso a 6.5 (Revised: 2.3).

Feeling a little dissatisfied about our less-than-stellar birthday cheese, Amanda and I made an important decision. When our waiter returned to the table, we gave him apologetic and embarrassed expressions and begged him not to judge us. After he promised, we requested that he bring us the other queso option.

Or, as we put it, “the queso with the flames.”

Our sweet server successfully hid any horror he was experiencing, and cheerfully told us that he liked our style. And by “style,” I think he meant our aptitude for cheese consumption.

The Queso Flameado was well worth our slight feelings of shame. Like the one at Sazón, this dish contained cheese and chilies that had been softened, as opposed to being fully melted. It was appropriately spicy and had a fabulous grilled/charred taste to it. Yum. We gleefully spooned mountains of cheese onto fresh tortillas, and bounced like hyper little kids in our seats.

It really just doesn’t take much to get us excited.

We gave the Queso Flameado a very commendable 9 (Revised: 4). We believed Sazón, the current front-runner, still deserved a small half-point edge over this one, because their dish had included chorizo; otherwise, these two non-traditional quesos are true equals.

gueroqueso1
The Queso Flameado on the left, and Chile Con Queso on the right

Guero’s website

queso criteria

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.)

cheesegraph4

R Bar & Grill’s website

 

Queso Critique: Sazón

Sazón (Austin)

It was a hot, sunny Saturday in August, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Amanda and I decided that it would be the perfect day to spend frolicking in a park   paddleboarding in the lake   attending a training on Child Protective Services. Neither of us was particularly excited about spending a Saturday afternoon learning about types of child abuse, but we figured we could have a late lunch/early dinner afterward and try out a new queso. We chose Sazón mostly because it was the nearest restaurant that we hadn’t already tried, BUT we also knew it’d gotten great reviews.

Sazón is truly a hole-in-the-wall place. We opted to sit outside on the patio, which featured wobbly floorboards and mismatched chairs. I decided to take this as a good sign – obviously, the people working there were too busy making deliciously cheesy things to care about silly things like floors.

Once again, the menu offered two different quesos – a more traditional and creamy option, and one that was sort of a “layered” concept of cheese, chorizo, and pico de gallo. We chose the latter option, because chorizo. The restaurant even smushed the words “chorizo” and “queso” together into ‘Choriqueso’ – much like the media does with celebrity couples’ names.

Think of Choriqueso as being the Brangelina of food.

The Choriqueso looked quite different from quesos that most people are used to seeing and eating, a fact that Amanda and I appreciated. The cheese, which was browned on top, was lightly melted together with the other ingredients, but was not in liquid form. Rather than dunking chips in, it was meant to be scooped up with spoons and spread onto warm, fresh tortillas.

(If you made an “Mmmmm” noise after reading that, then you and I should be friends. Unless we already are friends, in which case we should be even better friends, because we clearly have a lot in common.)

This queso was simply fantastic. Amazing. It was cheesy and flavorful, and had an excellent cheese-to-other-ingredient ratio. Having all of that flavor wrapped up in a tortilla was the icing on the cake – or the queso on the tortilla, if you will.

I wanted to climb into the dish and continue eating it with my face, without using my hands or utensils. I know that’s an incredibly weird thing to say, but you just have to experience it in order to fully understand. We gave the Choriqueso a near-perfect 9.5 (Revised: 4.5). Other quesos should be jealous of it.

Sazón’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

Queso Critique: River City Grille

River City Grille (Marble Falls)

For our third queso destination, Amanda and I decided to branch out of Austin a bit, and headed to the River City Grille in Marble Falls. The restaurant has an outdoor deck overlooking the Colorado River/Lake LBJ/Lake Marble Falls (not entirely sure what body of water it is – everybody seems to call it something else). You can relax outside and enjoy the view whilst sipping a lemon drop martini. It’s very pleasant.

Also, eating or drinking outdoors is pretty much the only “nature” time either of us gets.

When the waiter asked if we wanted the “small or the large queso,” we made loud, unladylike chuckles and suggested he bring the largest vessel he could find.  We liked the idea of coming to this restaurant so often, that the moment we walk inside, the host quickly staggers over carrying a veritable bucket of melted cheese. It seemed like a worthwhile goal.

Our Green Chile Queso arrived, and we were pleased to notice that when we merrily dunked our chips in, the queso clung on to them for dear life. Once again, we tried several bites before handing down a rating. There was a bit of deliberation, but we settled on a respectable score of 7 (Revised: 2.7).

The queso was cheesy, it was creamy, and the green chilies gave it a really nice flavor. But we didn’t have the same WOW reaction we’d had at Kerbey Lane, and the consistency was just a tad too thick, which kept us from giving this one a higher score. However, a 7 was totally enough to convince us to devour the whole bowl.

riverqueso