Queso Critique – Lupe Tortilla

Lupe Tortilla – Austin, TX

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

When shopping near a Mexican food restaurant that might potentially serve you queso, enter said restaurant, demand piles of cheese, and write a review for your blog.

That second phrase may not be as catchy as the first one, but it’s great advice.

Saturday, I ran errands around Austin, eventually meeting up with my fellow cheeseketeer at a mall, where she was shopping for school clothes with her kids. The trio was tired and in need of sustenance, and I’m rarely one to turn down delicious foodstuffs, so we all decided that Mexican food was in order.

The wonders of the Internet lead us to a nearby restaurant called Lupe Tortilla. After being seated at a table with a sombrero light fixture, we ordered a bowl of Chile con Queso with taco meat, mentally patting ourselves on the back for ordering the regular size, instead of the large. We’re such health nuts.

As we waited for the food, we sat back to admire the restaurant’s ant-pig-gecko-swordfish theme. Take a moment to let that artistry soak into your brain.

Nonsensical? Probably. Festive? Definitely.

Before we get into the queso review, I want you to see this picture of four tiny baby fajitas that the restaurant gave us just for being first-time patrons:

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I felt overly affectionate toward these little guys. Their cuteness had me wanting to wrap them up and take them home with me to keep forever in a special refrigerated shadow box.

On the other hand, their deliciousness had me wanting to shove my friend’s kids out of the way, so I could devour the fetus fajitas on my own.

Soon after polishing off my one fajita, the queso arrived:

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Amanda’s ravenous and cheese-loving children were eager to offer perfect scores, but my friend and I exchanged dubious glances. The queso had a decent consistency – it was liquidy, but not  too runny. It also had a nice level of spice, and the meat was relatively flavorful.

However, we were 100% convinced that this queso was made primarily of Velveeta, or one of its spongy cousins. To be fair, Velveeta is probably added to many of the quesos we’ve tasted,  because it lends a creamier texture. BUT, ideally, the dish should still taste like some kind of real, actual cheese. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

It’s just cheddar that way.

We settled on a score of 3 for Lupe Tortilla’s Chile con Queso. All in all, we found the dish to be stable, but not amazing. In other words, it was the exact opposite of Britney Spears.

The reason for the cheesin’

Queso scoring

Lupe Tortilla’s website

Queso Critique – The Shady Grove

The Shady Grove – Austin, TX

Gather ’round, children. It’s cheese-related story time.

Once upon a time, a cheese blogger and her friend thought it’d be fun to walk a mile in the late-afternoon Texas heat. To be more specific, they’d thought it’d be fun to attend a free concert in a park, and as it turned out, the Walk of Death was part of the package.

Soon into the walk, the two out-of-shapers were red-faced and out of breath, and sweat was pooling in places that it shouldn’t pool. And running down places it shouldn’t run. The two briefly wondered if perhaps they’d gotten trapped in the gym sock of a sweaty giant. They began to see mirages made of frozen margaritas.

The delusions and hallucinations were a clearly a bad sign.

Then – behold! A restaurant appearing in the distance! With patio tables and people drinking cold things. The weary travelers clung to each other in desperation, and then quickly let go because they were sweaty and it was gross. But, they weakly encouraged each other to continue just a little longer, and soon they were seated in the cool air conditioning of The Shady Grove, sipping icy drinks.

The evil hot ball in the sky had zapped their appetites, a rare phenomenon in the journeyers’ lives. However, the two knew it’d be important to eat something in order to continue the long and sweat-filled journey to the park, so they agreed to split a snack. They opened their menus, and, pleased to see bowls of melty cheese available, ordered one with pulled pork, pico de gallo, and guacamole.

shadygrove

Even in their fatigued and dehydrated states, they were able to accurately judge the queso and render a verdict. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Consistency: While other porky cheeses have been rather runny, this one was pleasantly creamy. (“Porky cheese” doesn’t sound right, but I’m sticking with it.)
  • Spice: Had a bit. Could’ve had a bit more.
  • Flavor: The pork was the best we’ve had so far – very tender and flavorful. The cheese had a “real” taste to it, not like a certain brick-shaped synthetic cheese product we all know and love. Still, it certainly could have been cheesier.
  • Extras: The guacamole was simple and clean – quite good!

Score: 3.4

Fortunately, the drinks and queso love nourished the worn-out travelers enough to get them safely to the park for a night of laughter and free music. And dog-petting. All the dogs.

The reason for the cheesin’

The Shady Grove website

 

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’

Queso Critique – Chili’s

Chili’s – Anywhere, U.S.A.

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.

We don’t usually go to chain restaurants, because what fun would that be? Our interests lie in the more creative, off-the-beaten path, regional bowls of melty cheese that represent Central Texas. We also realize that large chains are not the places to find unique and exciting new dishes. We are cheese adventurers, not tourists!

However, we noticed that when we discussed our queso journey with friends and coworkers, Chili’s name kept coming up. Some raved about its majestic deliciousness, and others strongly encouraged us to spend our money elsewhere.

We needed to venture to Chili’s in order to render a final opinion. To settle things once and for all.

We found seats at the patio bar and admired the pretty view while we sipped on margaritas and waited for our Skillet Queso to come out – unaware that the margaritas would be the best thing we ate that day.

When the food came out, we didn’t have our usual reaction of glee. Instead, we frowned a little. The queso was an unusual and rather off-putting color.

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I’m just going to come out and say it – this “queso” quickly reminded us of the used diaper we’d seen in the parking lot on the way into the restaurant. In both color and texture. Clearly,  we should have seen the yucky Pampers as a foreshadowing of the food we’d eat.

Trying to be open-minded, we brushed off thoughts of dirty diapers and tentatively dipped our chips into the queso.

Hmm.

Well…

Here’s the thing.

This stuff didn’t taste bad, but it was NOT queso. It was meaty and seasoning-y, and tasted a lot like the Wolf Brand Chili that you pour out of a can and dollop on top of hot dogs. But there lies the problem – that’s not normal (or desired) in a dish that is supposed to be mostly cheese! We love extra ingredients like guacamole and meat and peppers, but the cheese-to-other-ingredient ratio must be respected. Honored.

Devastatingly, this dish didn’t taste of cheese at all.

Let’s all take a moment of silence to fully appreciate the gravity of the situation.

This “queso” was not what it was claiming to be. It was an imposter. A brown, lumpy, cheese-less failure. As devotees of cheese we were not just sad or disappointed, we were betrayed. How dare this imposter promise cheesy gooey satisfaction and deliver a meaty mess!

Rating this one was surprisingly tough, because again – the taste was okay. Amanda and I agreed that if it were advertised as something else, perhaps called, “Skillet Meat Stuff,” we would have liked it just fine, and not made any major complaints (aside from the generic blandness of it.)

But my blog is called “Just in Queso,” not “Just in Skillet Meat Stuff.” That’d be a terrible blog name, anyway.

The point is, Chili’s is marketing this creature as a queso, so we’re going to judge it like one.  Under our new scoring system, a 0 is supposed to reflect a queso that is so disgusting, we couldn’t continue eating it. That seemed a bit too harsh for this one, because it wasn’t exactly inedible swill. But for the reasons discussed, major points had to be deducted.

So we gave the Skillet Queso a .5.

And now, to our loved ones who raved about Chili’s queso – let us extend our deepest sympathies to you, because clearly, you must have lost all of your taste buds in some sort of horrific accident. Perhaps you drank acid by mistake one day. It’s the only way to explain why you would love this dish so much.

And to those poor souls who have never tried queso and have been looking for places to sample it – please, for the love of the Holy Swiss, don’t even consider Chili’s.

P.S. – We don’t typically order more than one queso per restaurant visit, but the Skillet Meat Stuff left us feeling angry and cheese-deprived, so we ordered the other kind of queso that they offer in order to give it a shot. Stay tuned for that review later this week 🙂

 

Queso Critique – Billy’s on Burnet

Billy’s on Burnet – Austin, TX

billys
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

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

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