Queso Critique – Polvos

It seems like the last few posts I’ve written have included an announcement of some sort – new jobs, big moves, confessions of murderous rage, etc. Well, hold onto your hats because another one’s coming:

My queso quest is coming to an end. Sort of.

Deep breaths. It’s okay to cry. I’ll pause for a second so you can grab some tissues.

In a couple of months, my same-named cheese-friend/co-cheese-judge/co-cheese-conspirator Amanda is moving  quite far from this area – to a place in Texas where wildflowers are scarce, but love of queso is still plentiful. To a place so far away, that if I were to take a horse-drawn carriage to visit her, it’d take me at least a fortnight to get there.

Sadly, the distance will make it too difficult for us to keep reviewing on a regular basis, so we’ve decided to press the “pause” button on the project for now. It’s not a full stop, because there may still be occasional reviews when one of us visits the other.

Before you get concerned about me experiencing dangerous cheese withdrawals, I assure you that I’ll continue eating fermented dairy at a frequency that the medical community would find concerning.

With all the sad stuff said, Amanda and I decided that one more queso review was necessary before she moves. She and her kids visited me for a weekend of adventures, and in between touring beloved Austin sites, we squeezed in a visit to Polvos. Before leaving my apartment for the day, her kids performed an impromptu (and rather unprofessional) video interview of the queso judges.

At the restaurant, we quickly ordered the Choriqueso, and then cheerfully sang along with the music, which unexpectedly featured a lot of Beatles songs for a Tex-Mex place. I hear that Ringo was a big fan of enchiladas and carne guisada, so this makes perfect sense.

Here’s a beauty portrait of the queso when it arrived. Swoon.

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As we munched, Amanda and I began reminiscing on our cheese journey and all the quesos we’ve been experienced thus far. We decided that despite the variation in scoring, these dishes all fall into one of three categories:

  • So disappointing that I want to cry into the bowl, which isn’t a terrible idea, as the salt from my tears might make it taste better
  • Enjoyable, and would order again, but is not all that memorable
  • So delectable that I want to eat whatever this cheese touches, including the napkin and my own face

I’ll cut to the chase: the queso at Polvos falls in that middle category with a score of 3.8. It was of the baked flameado style, which is dear to our hearts. This variety  is meant to be lovingly scooped and coaxed into tortillas, and the consistency of this dish was perfect for that task. There was also no shortage on meat and poblano peppers, which provided lots of flavor.

However, the cheese in this dish was quite mild and didn’t provide much flavor of its own, which kept it from reaching that elusive 4-point rating. It doesn’t stand out like the ones above it do.

Still, not a bad queso to pause our journey on!

To read up on our specific judging criteria, OR to see a ranked list of all the quesos we tried, visit Queso Scoring.

 

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Queso Palooza

One kabillion years from now, when I look back on my career, the work accomplishment I think I’ll be most proud of will be the time that I somehow convinced multiple coworkers to bring me different types of cheese.

Let me set the scene for you. Almost every month, my agency has a potluck lunch to celebrate any employees’ birthdays that occurred during that month. Knowing how much my cheese wife and I adore queso, someone made a harmless-but-genius joke back in June that the next potluck should be queso-themed.

Amanda and I immediately latched on to this idea as though it were a life preserve and we were drowning in the ocean. Our eyes got big. We clapped our hands. We bounced up and down. The joke-maker tried to take her suggestion back, but at this point, it was too late. The toothpaste was already out of the tube.

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The Queso Palooza potluck finally rolled around last Wednesday. Five generous coworkers brought their own beloved queso creations and set up camp in the kitchen. Crockpots occupied every available electrical outlet. Bags of chips were poured into bowls. Some clever human even brought cheesecake for dessert.

It was a lot like how the Mayans used to please their gods by making animal sacrifices. Only, instead of gods, my coworkers were trying to impress two cheese-crazed humans. And instead of animal sacrifices, there were just cheese offerings.

So, to sum it up, it was nothing like the Mayans.

Amanda and I gathered samples of each cheese and sequestered ourselves in the conference room to conduct our official judging business. Regretfully, I was too hypnotized by all the quesos to remember to take pictures of them. But I did take diligent notes!

Queso #1 got us off to an excellent start with a smooth, creamy consistency that didn’t harden even as it cooled. Queso #2 contained white cheese (which we tend to prefer) and poblano peppers.

Appearance-wise, Queso #3 looked more like a chili than a queso, with its liquidy consistency and big chunks of onion and peppers. But it was very flavorful. Like the mad scientists we are, we mixed Quesos #3 and #1 together and found success.

Quesos #4 and #5 were the unique ones of the bunch, as #4 was the only one to be broiled in a skillet (and involve Gouda), and #5 was the only one to contain meat.

All of the quesos had their strengths and weaknesses, but the two we couldn’t stop snacking on were #1 and #4. We ended up awarding the grand prize trophy to Queso #4, which turned out to have been cooked by our supervisor. She triumphantly celebrated her victory.

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Awarded to “The Big Cheese”

Also, I feel like I should mention that all participants were given scratch-off tickets as a thank-you for humoring us, so at least we’re somewhat appreciative gods  cheese-crazed humans.

If you were having a potluck meal and could pick the theme, what would you go with? Breakfast foods? Desserts? Various quesos?

The Reason for the Cheesin’

 

Queso Critique – El Arroyo

El Arroyo – Austin, TX

Last Friday, Amanda and I attended a training on adolescents, trauma, and substance abuse. Don’t lie, I know you’re jealous. The best part of the training was when a person in the audience started talking about Twitter, and the speaker responded with a confused, “I don’t have Tweet.”

(By the way, my blog totally does have “Tweet” now. If you’d like to read about more of my cheese-related shenanigans, follow me @JustInQueso88)

Anyway, after sitting and listening to speakers for a few hours, my friend and I were feeling somewhat droopy, and we needed a pick-me-up. A cheese-me-up, if you will.

We followed a winding, scenic road through a fancy-shmancy area of Austin and landed at a not-so-fancy-shmancy restaurant called El Arroyo. I could tell you about the big, spacious patio, the tasty margaritas, and the ambiance-ruining grackles, but let’s get down to business! We have dairy products to discuss.

Amanda and I were pleased to discover that the restaurant offers an option to “build your own queso” by choosing from a list of ingredients. That’s right – DESIGNER queso. Queso couture. This is truly brilliant on El Arroyo’s part, as you can constantly change up your cheese accompaniments, and therefore, never get bored.

After some raucous and intense arguing, we selected a queso with fajita chicken, serrano peppers, and pico de gallo. It’s important to note that, to date, not a single other queso that we’ve reviewed has contained chicken. There have been various forms of pig, and a little bit of cow, but none of our feathery friends. It was time to give the humble chicken a chance to shine.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this bad boy:

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Before our first bites, we noticed that the chicken and vegetables had been finely chopped, which earned an approving head nod from both of us. It’s difficult to scoop up large chunks of meat, no matter how sturdy the chip. The smaller ingredients really do make for an easier eating experience.

The fajita chicken turned out to be a very wise choice, as it was delicious. Easily the highlight of the dish. I wanted to order an entire bowl of those tiny spicy chicken pieces and eat it like a soup.

That’s not weird. Just go with it.

The serrano peppers were much spicier than we expected – probably because we confused them with their milder pepper cousin, the poblano. Nevertheless, it’s not El Arroyo’s fault that we’re pepper-challenged, so we’re not in any way holding this one against them. Plus, the peppers added lots of flavor to the dish – we just had to consume it in small amounts 🙂

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Now for the not-so-good aspects of this meal. The consistency of the queso was quite a bit runnier than desired – liquidy, as opposed to creamy. Even more dreadfully, it hardened as time went by.

Also, the flavor of the cheese itself was completely unimpressive. With the other ingredients added in, it made for an enjoyable all-around dish, but on its own, it was bland and mournfully reminiscent of Velveeta. Use of the artificial cheese-like product is probably also why the queso hardened as it cooled.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Amanda and I like Velveeta. If we’re at home and want nachos, we won’t think twice about throwing some salsa or Rotel on a few spongey cubes of Velveeta, and then zapping it all in the microwave. We’re GOURMET, mothercheesers!

But if we’re at a restaurant and paying decent cheese fees, we do expect something a bit more complicated.

To put it another way, when we eat queso, we want to feel like we’re being run over by a giant, eighteen-wheeler-sized hunk of dairy. Then, just as we’re starting to peel ourselves off of the road, the cheese-mobile goes in reverse and slams us again.

To compare, El Arroyo’s queso only gave us an awkward pat on the shoulder.

When it comes to scoring, El Arroyo totally gets an honorable mention for allowing us to design our own queso. Really. That made us super happy. But as for the queso itself, we gave the restaurant a relatively average score of 3.2.

On a side note, I don’t normally comment on a restaurant’s service, because I write reviews of queso, not of general restaurant experiences. But it seems important to note that the service at El Arroyo was not good. Our server was friendly, and our orders were accurate, but the sheer amount of time spent waiting (and waiting and waiting) for things was pretty bad.

Side note #2, this was officially Just In Queso’s NINETEENTH review. That’s a lot of cheese! To celebrate the big 2-0, we’ll be doing something a bit different, but I’ll keep that a surprise for now 😉

If you’re new to my blog, click here to learn the reason for the cheesin’!

 

 

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

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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: Super Taco

Super Taco – Marble Falls, TX

It’s official. All of the decadent, delicious quesos that Amanda and I have tried over the past few months have spoiled us, possibly beyond repair. I say this because our most recent queso, which I would have thoroughly enjoyed a year ago, left me a bit disappointed.

Super Taco is housed in an orange adobe building attached to a gas station. We are in the camp of people who do not need fancy digs in order to enjoy a meal – sometimes, the more ramshackle a place looks, the better! We also thought it was a promising sign that the restaurant was packed when we arrived.

Clearly, the locals approve of this gas station excellence.

The inside was fun and colorful, painted with different shades of yellow and orange – possibly to match the beautiful colors of tortilla chips and cheese. It actually felt a bit like we were sitting in a giant bowl of queso – which I did not consider a bad thing.

The downside to the restaurant being packed is that we had to wait pretty long to get our food. By the time it finally arrived, we didn’t have much time to eat.

I’ll keep this review short and sweet salty. The queso had a nice cheese flavor, but the consistency was a bit thinner than we like, and there was absolutely no spice.

This is what I mean when I say that other dishes have spoiled us – in the past, I likely would have found Super Taco’s queso to be quite tasty and easily scarfed it down. But now that I know what a queso CAN be – deliciously creamy and spicy, and chock-full of meat and other ingredients – I find myself a bit let down by a more lackluster version.

We gave this dish a ho-hum score of 5 out of 10 (Revised score: 1). As established in a previous review , a 5 is adequate enough to keep eating, but really nothing special.

On a side note, Super Taco is worth visiting for the tacos. Those things are both monstrous and amazingly cheap. And yummy, of course. If you want to eat something larger than your own head without breaking the bank, this is the place for you.

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Queso Criteria