Food & Drink

Thanks Queso! How Austin's Restaurant Scene Changed This Midwesterner's Life.

austin's restaurant scene
The Queso from Torchy's Tacos | Mike Cortez/Thrillist
The Queso from Torchy's Tacos | Mike Cortez/Thrillist

I knew my life was forever changed the moment I tried Torchy’s queso. That warm tortilla chip with a touch of salt ferried a complex combination of cheese, habanero, and fresh guacamole into my mouth -- and heart.

There was no going back. My journey from the humble Midwest to the culinary melting pot of Austin, Texas had begun, and queso was the proverbial rabbit hole.

Or, at least it would lead to a ton more queso, which is never a bad thing.

torchy's tacos
The Queso at Torchy's Tacos | Mike Cortez/Thrillist

Before moving to Austin from Toledo, Ohio so my wife could attend grad school, I heard two things ad nauseum from friends, family, and co-workers:

“Wow, the barbecue is going to be fantastic.”

“At least it’s a dry heat down there, huh?”

I can say with the utmost certainty that both statements have proven to be wild misrepresentations of the Lone Star State’s capital city. No amount of dryness matters when hauling your belongings into an apartment in the first week of August and its five straight days of 105-degree heat.

As for the barbecue... well, it’s complicated. I’ve had some fine low-and-slow-cooked meat since the start of this Southern sojourn, but what’s stood out are the new takes on the classics. The number of trucks, stalls, and eateries that have taken inspirations from other styles feels central to the Austin eating ethos.

Take Chi’Lantro BBQ: a Korean-Mexican fusion that began as a food truck in 2010 and has now expanded to restaurants and even an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank. Upon landing in Austin I desired my favorite comfort food, chicken wings, and Chi’Lantro’s take on the dive-bar classic are some of the best I’ve devoured. The fries are the star -- crunchy, crispy, covered in piles of caramelized kimchi, cheeses, Sriracha, and grilled meats -- but the real powerhouse is the Gangnam chicken wings, glazed in the most beautiful Thai chili coating known to man. The wings are huge and fried to extra-crisp perfection, with a craggy exterior that doesn’t let any of the sweet and burn-unit-worthy sauce go to waste. My acid reflux hates me every time, but I can’t resist the tradeoff of pain for this poultry pleasure.

In a town like Toledo, where residents staunchly maintain the traditions of their immigrant ancestors, finding authentic ethnic restaurants isn’t difficult, but twists on cuisines are rare. What makes a place like Chi’Lantro stand out to me is the simple combination and daring involved in taking two beloved things and figuring out what parts work well together. (I’m also always on the search for the perfect chicken dish, so I’m always glad for an excuse to try a new take on an old wing.)

Alas, Rachel and I don’t eat Korean-spiced cuisine every day. Sometimes all you want is comfort food that harkens back to a period of time when slabs of meat were the size of a small child.

I found that at Hyde Park Bar & Grill, the Austin institution in the center of the city, with its ‘70s-looking interior and massive fork statue out front. Its menu blends the comfort food from an old Midwest neighborhood with items that scream “authentic Texas.”

The restaurant’s most well-known item is the fries, battered in buttermilk, seasoned flour, and served in a massive heap. It feels odd to extol the virtues of something so simple, but these spuds have a perfect snap and crackle reminiscent of Jacques Pépin’s pommes frites recipe.

In this instance, these fries came stuffed in a burger of authentic Texas beef that was larger than anything I’d seen in years. Meat prices in the Midwest are astronomically prohibitive, so being able to chow down on cow once more without breaking the bank was only made better by this monstrosity of a patty covered in cheese sauce.

At this point, you’re probably seeing a common thread through my food choices. Cheese is the food deity whose altar I worship at, so it should come as no shock that Torchy’s Tacos is my proverbial Mecca.

Before I went to Austin, queso was the sad combination of processed cheese and canned chili that suspiciously made my mother-in-law's cat moan in preemptive pleasure, just like when she’d get her usual tin of pet food. Real queso has a life of its own in Austin, as both a daily lifeblood to an entire region and, seemingly, a social currency. The only thing from back home that I can compare the fervor for queso to is the pierogi, the fried Polish dumpling that’s common fare from Chicago to Cleveland. Almost everyone has an opinion on who does these dishes the best.

And compared to the Midwest, tacos in Austin are a revelation. Whether it’s a regional franchise like Torchy’s or a local, family-owned place like Taco Joint off San Jacinto Blvd, someone is making this food with passion, and that alone is a great comfort while living a 20 hour drive from the snow-laden scenery of Ohio.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the likes of Columbus, Sandusky, and Detroit. The area is the butt of a lot of food jokes, lately including ridicule surrounding “Detroit-style pizza,” the rectangular, sauce-topped version of deep dish. Culinary shame didn’t stop my wife and I from finding a bit of the Motor City in the heart of Austin, at Via 313. Months removed from first landing in Texas, we both needed a reminder of home. Luck would have it that I found said comfort in the rich tomato sauce, charred mozzarella, and smoked meat of Via 313's signature Detroit-style dish.

At that point, sitting there as the Texas air went from hot day to cool night, I realized Austin was beginning to feel very much like home. We have adventure, a new community, and wonderful friends. Most of all, we have the cozy reminders of the Midwest surrounding us in the form of food, albeit with a twist, and that makes each day in our new city worthwhile.

But, real talk: I’m never eating that horrid combo of Hormel and Velveeta ever again, nor will I even refer to it as queso.

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Will Harrison is a journalist who learned the hard way that eating queso while playing Resident Evil 7 was a fool's errand. Follow him for more on Austin food, video games, and makeshift napkin life hacks: @DoubleUHarrison.