May is officially National Salsa Month, but in Texas circles, chile con queso is king. Now that I've crisscrossed the state gladly ruining my suppers, my question is simple: Of all the great yellow cheese concoctions in all the great Lone Star Tex-Mex joints, which one stands alone? I think it comes down to a head-to-head taste test between two quesos, both memorable and with stellar stories.
Is Jose Working Tonight?
Eat: When I visited Molina's Cantina in Houston, I ordered the menu's largest helping of Original Jose's Dip. It was my first ever. Coming out promptly and piping hot, the orange-yellow queso filled the old style clay bowl and arrived with the trademark spicy taco meat topping the cheese. It was gone in 10 minutes. Houstonians love this 67-year-old cantina--for its hustling and polite bow tied waiters, its family feel, and especially for Original Jose's Dip.
Unless you ask around, you'll find no mention about the dip's namesake. The story, though, is worth an inquiry. Decades ago, Jose the waiter worked the dinner shift. An entrepreneur at heart, Jose, unbeknownst to the cooks, took to slipping meat into the regular queso. Customers appreciated the generous gesture. But when Jose took a week off for vacation, dozens of "Jose's dip" requests came from tables. Jose had made his mark on the regulars, and today, the legendary Original Jose's Dip is considered one of Molina's signature creations.
Who Is Bob Armstrong?
Eat: Steaming cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and spicy beef--all in one? Why not? We are in Texas. The Bob Armstrong dip is a must at Matt's El Rancho in Austin or Matt's Rancho Martinez in Dallas. For me, digging into "the Bob" harks back to a jumbo ice-cream sundae at my hometown Dairy Queen after Little League games. I'd add all my favorite toppings, simply because I loved Oreos, M&M'S, and HEATH bars. The more the merrier was a literal thought. More is merrier with the Bob, for sure.
I like Texas because of guys such as Bob and his queso. The Bob Armstrong is Texas queso--bigger and better in the way only this state does things.
A onetime state legislator and land commissioner, Bob ate a daily lunch at the original Matt's. As the story goes, back in the late sixties, Bob asked Matt to whip up something out of the ordinary, a menu first just for him. Out came the overflowing concoction that seemed like a Tex-Mex starters sampler. Quickly, the Bob Armstrong made the menu, both at Matt's and at copycat cantinas all over Texas.
Like Molina's Jose, Bob Armstrong's name has been carved into queso lore, one delightful bowl at a time.
The Star Cheeses
• Los Barrios, San Antonio. Queso is served over chopped chicken fajita, pico de gallo, avocado, and jalapeños. www.losbarrios1.com or (210) 732-6017.
• El Norte Mexican Grill, Plano. Queso El Head Honcho, with a good balance of peppers and onions, is for the heartiest of dip lovers. www.elnortegrill.com or (972) 596-6783.
• Little Diner Tortilla Factory, Canutillo. This tiny town near El Paso claims a top Tex-Mex spot near the border. http://www.littlediner.com or (915) 877-2176.
• Maudie's Café, Austin. Maura's Bean Dip (queso and refried beans) is better than the regular stuff. (512) 473-3740.
• Texican Café, Austin. Queso a la Parilla (vegetables and cheese) is a favorite of cyclists in training. www.texicancafe.com or (512) 282-9094.
"Texas Con Queso" is from the May 2008 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.