Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue and Emmer & Rye’s Kevin Fink talk about making some of the world’s best queso

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What happens when two of Austin’s best chefs apply their culinary talents to the art of queso? Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue and Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye discuss the secrets to their cheesy success at the Hot Luck pop-up event Quesoff, sponsored by Washington State Wine during South by Southwest.

Aaron Franklin, left of Franklin Barbecue and Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye stand for a portrait in the lot of SouthBites in downtown Austin during SXSW. JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN.

Queso the Mondays: Tacodeli

Roberto’s Brazo Fuerte Dip & Chips at Tacodeli. (Credit: Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Roberto’s Brazo Fuerte at Tacodeli. (Credit: Matthew Odam AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Roberto’s Brazo Fuerte at Tacodeli (medium, $7.25). Multiple locations. tacodeli.com.

I’m only running out one queso on this Monday because man can not live on queso alone. Besides, last week was a little rough, and this queso arguably deserves its own entry.

Want to be the hero at your office’s Monday morning meeting? Walk in with a dish of the pale gold that is the Roberto’s Brazo Fuerte from Tacodeli. The upgrade to their regular queso comes with the Akaushi picadillo from their popular lunch taco, but if you get there before 11 a.m., like I did (pro tip: between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. or after 2 p.m. are the sweet spots at the Spyglass location), you have a choice between sausage and chorizo.

Go with the chorizo. It gives a mild piquancy, with a touch of that chorizo funk, to the white cheese base that is somehow thick and runny at the same time. That consistency is good for coating your chips (made with 1oo percent organic masa), but it also means you might be licking your knuckles and the side of your hand. The cheese dip is milky and pleasurably salty (the chorizo played a hand in that), and the pico mix contains jalapenos with good, firm snap and floral cilantro that sings through the mix. If you want to stick to vegetarian queso, as to not upset your friends (or music critic), you can go with the regular queso for $3.75, $6.50 or $8.50.

Queso the Mondays: Curra’s Grill, Magnolia Cafe, Guero’s, Fresa’s

currasprint

Curra’s Grill. 614 E. Oltorf St. 512-444-0012, currasgrill.com. (small, $6.99)

I was excited to try the Kelly’s Queso, made with white processed cheese, but apparently that menu item no longer exists at the South Austin staple. That meant classic yellow queso. It was thick and came with a garnish of mushy ground beef that had the consistency of potted meat, a dollop of bright green guacamole and a smattering of pico with a slice of jalapeno. Highlight: warm chips.

 

magnoliaprint

Magnolia Cafe. 1920 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-445-0000, magnoliacafeaustin.com. ($8.95)

You can’t see it, but underneath that yellow film likes a big ol pile of black beans. Stir it all up with the salty yellow corn and you’ll see why it’s called Mag Mud. The beans provide a dusky flavor and hue to this popular dish. The pico was abundant, full of onion flavor and had a little sting to it. Sliced avocado is a little harder to integrate that guacamole, but I appreciate the simplicity of that presentation.

 

guerosprint

Guero’s Taco Bar. 1412 S. Congress Ave. 512-447-7688, gueros.com. (small, $5.89).

It was about the time we pulled up a bar stool at Guero’s that I started realizing that I may be on a fool’s errand trying to find the best queso in Austin. I guess they picked the right guy. While you find variations on the theme, what you get more often that not is processed yellow cheese with pico de gallo. That was the case here, but even old reliable here had its problem. There was only a pinch of pico, wilted and drained of life, that disappeared into the yellow goo once separated from its entrapment in film.

 

fresasprint

Fresa’s. 1703 S. First St. 512-992-2946; 915 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-428-5077, fresaschicken.com. ($7)

Now we’re talking. I guess all quesos aren’t made the same. Of course, we’ll probably never know exactly what goes into the queso here because chef Rene Ortiz isn’t likely to share his recipe. I do know there is a great depth of flavor to this queso that apparently uses white cheddar and Jack cheese in its mix. The melt is runny, but not too runny, allowing it to easily coat a chip and still have little drippage. The chips are fairly thin, have delicate crackle to them and fried to a clean finish. I also think there are some roasted peppers involved in this mild queso that is flecked with herbs and finished with a shower of soft queso blanco for texture and added creaminess.

Queso the Mondays: Azul Tequila, Papalote, Sazon and Torchy’s Tacos

I will slowly make my way around Austin over the next several weeks, sampling some of the city’s notable quesos.  I will post  about what I’ve seen and eaten here as part of this Queso the Mondays series. I have a list of about 30 restaurants, and hopefully it includes some of your favorites. But if there is a  place you think I should know about, holler in the comments.

azultequila

Azul Tequila. 4211 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-416-9667, azultequila.com. ($6)

When people think of queso, they probably imagine something like this offering from Azul Tequila. This is the kind of queso you could find at generic Mexican restaurants across the country. The mix, which I assume used Velveeta as its base, was milky, thick and somewhat bland. The poblano peppers added some texture, but no heat.  Overall score: 3/10

papalote

Papalote. 2803 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-804-2474, yumpapalote.com. ($3.99)

Considering that there is such attention to detail given to process and scratch cooking at this taqueria from the owners of Azul Tequila, it’s a little surprising there’s not more effort given to queso. This one had a smoother and thinner consistency than its sister down the street, with just a few soft green peppers floating around. Again, no real heat to speak of. The chips were the best of this week’s quartet, with a bubbled finish and a gentle shatter. Overall score: 4/10

sazon

Sazon. 1816 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-326-4395, sazonaustin.com. ($5.99)

This queso was separating on top and had lumpy consistency throughout. Raw green peppers and weathered cilantro didn’t do much to express themselves, and the queso tasted like most of its seasoning came from garlic salt. An odd choice. Bonus points for the doily. Overall score: 2/10

torchys

Torchy’s Tacos. 3005 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-614-1832, torchystacos.com. ($5.25)

Maybe they should change the name to Torchy’s Queso. The cheese dip that helped put the Austin-based chain on the map is still the best thing at the restaurant. A ’90s squiggle of Diablo Sauce (made with fire-roasted habanero peppers, tomato and vinegar) puts some acidic sting in this queso that is colored with flecks of skin from roasted green chilies that spread their heat throughout. A minor quibble: The cilantro and guacamole could stand out more in their roles of floral and fatty salve. The chips came out warm and salted, a nice touch. But though the menu says “homemade chips,” we were told the chips come from Austin’s own El Milagro. Overall score: 8.5/10

Austin mayor Steve Adler talks queso with I Love Queso So Much podcast

Austin mayor Steve Adler and interim city manager Elaine Hart discussing something that is definitely not queso. (Credit: Tina Phan AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Austin mayor Steve Adler and interim city manager Elaine Hart discussing something that is definitely not queso. (Credit: Tina Phan AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Austin mayor Steve Adler has not been afraid to take his civic duties beyond the day-to-day at city hall. (He even declared ‘taco war’ on San Antonio last year.) In one of his latest expressions of apolitical interests, Adler joins the host of I Love Queso So Much to breakdown his thoughts on the queso at Pelon’s and queso in general.

In the podcast, the mayor admits to getting fooled by local friends by eating a pepper when he first visited Austin. While he does say he likes the Pelon queso, he puts on his political act and says it is hard for him to “make qualitative comparisons.”

“I am the mayor of all quesos in Austin,” Adler said.

Listen to the full episode here.