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!

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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.

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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.)

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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

Queso Critiques: Kerbey Lane Cafe & Maudie’s

Kerbey Lane Café (Austin)

Finally, it was time to make the pilgrimage to our first queso establishment. Kerbey Lane Café has several locations throughout Austin, and is known for its classic diner food, fluffy pancakes, and yes – bowls of melty cheese. I’d had a chaotic, stressful day at work (as a mental health professional, that just kind of comes with the territory), and I was looking forward to a cheesy tranquilizer. Amanda’s children and sister Katrina joined us for the experience.

The menu offered two different queso options, which filled us with inexplicable affection for the restaurant. We chose the Kerbey Queso, which came with dollops of guacamole and pico de gallo swimming right in the center. Neither the adults nor the kids wasted any time grabbing chips and dunking them right in.

Although Amanda and I were the only ones giving ratings (we’re judgmental like that), we were certainly open to suggestions and comments from the others. Everyone agreed right away that this queso deserved a good score – the consistency was creamy without being too thick, and the flavor was wonderfully cheesy and seasoning-y. With a bonus half-point added on for the guacamole, we gave Kerbey a solid 8.5 rating (Revised: 3.5).

Our quest was off to an excellent start!

By the way, I wish I could say that we later ordered healthy salads to balance out the meal, but we accidentally ordered a dish that involved eggs and bacon being topped with more queso. I have no regrets.

Kerbey’s website

Maudie’s (Bee Cave)

Our second destination was to Maudie’s, a laid-back but lively Tex-Mex restaurant with numerous locations in Austin and surrounding cities. I had eaten at Maudie’s before and knew their enchiladas were pretty good, so I was eager to try the Chile Con Queso. We got a table on the outside patio and immediately demanded (and by demanded, I mean politely requested) margaritas. It was Amanda’s birthday, so we were in a bit of a celebratory mood, but to be truthful, we didn’t really need a reason to order them. We’re margarita people.

In appearance, Maudie’s queso looked very much like the standard queso you expect to see – yellow cheese blended with chilies. Amanda and I chewed our chips thoughtfully, making happy humming noises. The cheese level was on point, but we agreed that there was very little other flavor in there, despite the presence of chilies. We concluded that the queso tasted decent enough for us to keep eating it, but was not something to get really excited about.

Frankly, the ideal queso should taste so delicious that you become irrationally angry with the other people at your table – because they’re eating the queso too, and that means you get less of it. Maudie’s queso did not give me any ill feelings toward Amanda. We did notice that adding some salsa kicked it up a notch, but that seemed like cheating. Also, as the queso cooled, the previous liquidy consistency became quite thick and difficult to stab with a tortilla chip. A definite no-no.

After much deliberation, we gave Maudie’s Chile Con Queso a 5 (Revised: 1). For this and future ratings, we determined that a 5 would be a fair score for anyone whose queso is tasty “enough”, but is nothing really special. Probably no one will score below a 5, unless there are major problems. (I’m not sure what major problems could arise from a bowl of cheese, but you never know. Never challenge the cheese gods.)

Maudie’s website

Queso Criteria