It’s not the state dish of Texas—that would be chili—but queso is so revered in Austin that it has its very own festival.
“We decided the city needed to celebrate the magical melted cheese phenomenon that is queso,” says Adi Anand, who launched the event—called Quesoff—with his friend James Moody after “a few whiskies too many” in 2011.
The festival celebrates the concoction in all its iterations. Unlike queso fundido, its south-of-the-border inspiration, “queso in Texas tends to be more free-flowing and open to interpretation,” says Anand. At Quesoff, Austin chefs and laypeople alike duke it out in a cooking competition yielding creative twists: Think queso gelato, mezcal queso, tandoor queso, and even vegan queso.
A recent transplant to the Lone Star State, I flocked with the crowds to a Quesoff last March. There, I ran into Aaron Franklin, pitmaster and owner of Franklin Barbecue, who entered a chile de árbol–spiked version with Jack cheese, poblano crema, and bits of fried brisket.
“Texas queso is a trashy version of fundido,” Franklin says. “I mean that in a good way—I want to eat it while watching football, sitting around with friends, drinking beer.”
“Queso is the people’s food,” says Bryan Nelson, whose hirsute social organization—the Austin Facial Hair Club—entered its own dip into the competition. “The best versions have either government cheese or Velveeta.” While the club adhered to that tradition, they also added an ungodly amount of incendiary ghost, habanero, Fresno, and jalapeño peppers; dried scorpions (“They add fear,” Nelson says); and shredded red pepper threads (“They resemble beard hair”). The result was surprisingly palatable.
Others trended fancier: Kevin Fink, chef and owner of local restaurant Emmer & Rye, made a “black and white” queso, rendered smoky, tangy, and complex from a mix of Nettle Meadow Farm Kunik and Italian Casatica di Bufala, with Swiss chard, smoked mushrooms, and wild onions.
My favorite was the Quesocois made by former Quesoff champion Geoff Peveto of Frank, a local eatery specializing in artisanal sausage. He mixed his housemade smoked duck sausage with French Brie de Nangis and served it on toasted baguette with fig mostarda—and was kind enough to share the recipe.
- 1 pound Velveeta
- 4 ounces brie
- 4 ounces smoked gouda
- 1¼ cups whole milk
- 4 ounces smoked duck sausage, crumbled
- 2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
- 1 baguette, sliced and toasted
- 3 ounces fig mostarda
- ¼ cup toasted walnuts, chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
- ►Combine cheeses and milk in a double boiler and heat until completely melted, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.
- ► Add crumbled sausage and Herbes de Provence, stirring constantly until heated through. Remove from heat.
- ►Serve on toasted baguette slices, garnished with fig mostarda, walnuts, and chives.