If you’ve spent any significant part of your life in Austin, then you’ve likely developed some pretty strong opinions about the city's unofficial dish: queso.
Like our state’s other well-loved delicacies, Austin has its share of queso connoisseurs. Some are originalists who argue the queso fundido is the purest and best iteration. Others claim the midcentury version that popularized the dish, made with American cheese and a can of Ro-Tel, is the only option. Still others are more progressive, always on the hunt for queso’s next artisan evolution.
Nationally, there’s been something of a queso revolution going on, with versions of varying quality popping up on fancy menus in New York, and in national (non-Texas-based) fast casual chains. Some have gone so far in their efforts to claim Austin authenticity as to cop the name Bob Armstrong for their bogus facsimiles.
A great queso is all about balance. Its consistency is stable, not too thin, but not so tight that it breaks our dipping chips. There’s plenty of spice, but not so much that the creaminess of the cheese can’t mellow it out. Added ingredients like guacamole and pico de gallo impart a bright acidity as counterweight to the rich gooeyness.
Below are this year’s contenders for what is sure to be a hotly contested title: the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Best Queso. Tune in on Thursday, July 23 at 7pm as we crown the winner during our first-ever Tastemaker Awards — Virtual Edition, hosted by Bun B. It's our way of celebrating the extraordinary spirit of the Austin restaurant and bar scene during this challenging time. Tickets to the virtual event are on sale now and include a Tasting Tote featuring bites, sips, and more to enjoy at home.
El Alma, the reigning date night destination near Zilker Park, has spent the last dozen years putting an upscale twist on approachable interior Mexican and Tex-Mex classics. The spicy queso blanco y rojo, and the more-of-a-meal queso fundido are both excellent examples of the cheesy staple, but it's the outstanding homemade chips really set El Alma apart. For a great deal, try these queso dishes during the daily happy hour, but be sure to reserve a table before heading in.
Currently: El Alma is currently open for in-house dining.
The Eldorado Cafe is about as Austin as it gets. Laid back and whimsical, but with an elevated touch to food and cocktails, this Allandale neighborhood favorite has mastered the queso arts. The Supa Queso is, well, super, and offers a classic queso souped up with pico de gallo, guac, and black beans. Enjoy some to-go any day of the week.
Currently: Open for curbside takeout or delivery via third-party apps.
Kerbey Lane Cafe
The queso at this stalwart Austin chain is on pretty much everybody’s favorite list, and for good reason. There are now several generations of Austinites who have grown up on Kerbey's decked-out Cowboy Queso (add chorizo if you’re a real fan). But if you want the unpublished recipe, you’re in for a long trek — one of the only copies was sent to the moon last year aboard the SpaceX Falcon rocket. “Turns out, the moon isn’t really made of cheese,” says Kerbey Lane CEO Mason Ayer. “So we sent some.”
Currently: Dine in or take advantage of "Kerbside" pickup.
Since the Carter administration, residents indulging in Austin’s rollicking nightlife have likely spent a few early morning hours tamping down their buzz at the 24-hour Magnolia Cafe. The famous Mag Mud — a black-bean-fortified take on classic queso — will do the trick handily. Loyalists swear by it as the apex of Austin queso.
Currently: At the moment, it’s only available for curbside pickup between 9 am-9 pm, but you’re welcome to enjoy it on the beautiful South Congress garden patio.
Matt’s Famous El Rancho
Matt’s Famous El Rancho, the enduring Tex Mex institution, is perhaps the most iconic restaurant on this list. The aforementioned (and oft-imitated) Bob Armstrong Dip is for queso what The Beatles are to rock 'n’ roll — Matt's El Rancho didn’t invent it, but it sure made it famous. Its namesake, the longtime Austin politician and El Rancho regular who passed away in 2015, was known for approaching tables of people enjoying the dip and proclaiming, “I’m Bob Armstrong!”
Currently: Matt's El Rancho is currently open for curbside or delivery.
Tamale House East
A fixture since 1958, the original Tamale House on Airport Boulevard lives on through its family's east side restaurant. Austinites swear by the queso compuesto, a formidable version of the dip done up with handmade guacamole and taco meat, also available in a veggie version. Order it to-go, or enjoy it in the restaurant's Secret Magical Garden out back.
Currently: Tamale House East is currently open for curbside or delivery via third-party apps.
Torchy’s green chile queso is among the most beloved on the list, a texturally perfect dish with the right balance of salt and spice thanks to the addition of fresh cotija cheese, house guac, and the chain’s kickin’ Diablo Sauce. As the locally based brand has expanded over the years, the quality of the queso has remained. Fans in six states can now experience a taste of this genuine Austin dish.
Currently: Torchy's is currently open for to-go and limited dine-in.
Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
Valentina’s, the far South Austin Tex-Mex/barbecue outpost, has found a way to marry together all things Texas under one open-air roof — and its queso is no exception. Order it loaded with chunks of melty smoked brisket, or enjoy it drenched over one of Valentina's famous barbecue tacos.
Currently: Valentina's is currently open for to-go orders only.