Few things are worse than a vegan dish that becomes a classic, nutrition-free hobby of a “healthy food.” I want my ice cream, pancakes, and burgers to be free of animal products, including eggs and dairy, but that doesn’t mean they should all taste like bean sprouts. Vegan treats should taste just as indulgent as the originals. As a Houstonian, this is especially true of the queso, the cheese, peppery sauce which can show up drizzled on migas, choking an enchilada, or, in its best form, on a chip. When I dip a chip in a bowl of gooey seasoned goodness cheese, my first thought would be “Yum!” pa “This is sure to control my blood sugar! ”
Many carnivores swear by Velveeta and Ro-Tel as the holy grail ingredients in their queso (also known as “chili con queso” when it’s problematic). No matter this mix of it, processed cheese is usually the foundation, creating a texture that isn’t too velvety, not too watery, but just straight. Even when it’s not spicy, dairy-based queso still has heat. The best types have pieces of tomatoes and peppers. The forgivable type has little processed cheese. Most vegan quesos are cashew-based, a fact that I don’t want to be aware of while I’m eating it.
Good queso is not just about taste. At least 90 percent of the queso I’ve burned in my life has been during content or downright celebration times, on a patio, and a cold drinks in reach. The characteristic of a good queso is that the very act of soaking in it must induce a dopamine hit. Even if you start out sad, by the time your stomach is filled with cheese, the magic of a good queso will lift you higher.
The queso mandate, for brave Texas chefs and food companies that market the country of vegan queso, is this combination of different flavors and good-weather vibes. Fortunately, the big state of Texas is full of vegan options that fit the bill. I took 34 years of my experience with real cheese queso and 2 years with cashew-based versions on a statewide trip, and compared the animal-produced-dishes to free with my memory of their cheese predecessors.
(Dallas) This Black Vegan Restaurant was my first experience eating fresh vegan queso blanco, the white-cheese version of standard yellow-cheese queso. Though the texture of this vegan queso was unexpectedly thick, I was thrilled by the abundant amount of fresh pico de gallo mixed in. Each chip was full of gooey cheese, fresh tomatoes, peppers, and spices. What is not love?
How does he like the real thing? Pico integration.
(Houston) A good well-mixed cheese: not too watery and not too thick. Local foods nailed my queso consistency criteria with its cashew cheese. Unlike other quesos that only taste like chili added, Local vegan queso food actually has dollops of vegan chorizo and pico de gallo right in the middle, making for a deeply satisfying vegan treat.
How does he like the real thing? Consistency.
(Dallas / Fort Worth) Sometimes you can almost taste how hard the chef worked to transform plant-based ingredients into something resembling a staple like queso. To make plant-based queso tastes good enough to evoke the fun effortlessly on a summer evening spent on a Texan’s patio, restaurants have to get invented. Diner’s spiral “nacho cheese,” as it terms its vegan queso offering, exceeds those expectations. The cheese slides over your chip with confidence and ease. My sister, an omnivore, loved it. When I asked her why, she said, “Because it tastes like queso, not black.”
How does he like the real thing? Gou.
(San Antonio) This Mexican, woman-owned vegan restaurant mastered the art of vegan queso. It looks like crates and possesses the texture of crates. If you, like me, spent hot summer days outside at satisfying tracks or at Bible school vacations, your taste buds will immediately remember the delicious taste of heavily processed Great Value Nacho Chili Cheese Dog. Vegan Avenue on Main offers a fresh take on this nostalgic flavor profile, without the animal products or Bible verses.
How does he like the real thing? Tastes like childhood.
(Various HEBs, Central Markets, and Food Locations) This queso is just as fun as its packaging, which features dancing, cashew tanning. I tried spicy, chorizo-based beans, and medium varieties, and none of them disappointed. (Upon the first opening of the package, the skeptical vegan caesarean resident might point to its slightly watery texture, but just give it a stir.) A gussied-up credo, served with freshly chopped peppers, served also as the basis for the dish of Veracruz all natural in Austin. Order with the watermelon margarita.
How does he like the real thing? Gou.
The Honest Stand (Plant-based classic cheddar dive)
(Various places) With dozens of stores in Texas, Natural Groceries brought vegan foods like queso to some easy places, including Amarillo. The plant-based cheese dip honest stand is, yes, cheese, but it’s also a little sweet. This unexpected sweetness, courtesy of the carrots and tapioca in the ingredient list, makes the honest stand the most versatile of the grocery-store offerings. I drizzle it on my breakfast tacos, Buddha bowl, and chips.
How does he like the real thing? Adaptability, thanks to the sweetness.
(Various HEBs, Central Markets, and Food Locations) I affectionately refer to this as my emergency queso. When I lived in New York, I often settled for the essence of queso, knowing I would never be able to get the real Tex-Mex experience. I depend on this brand. The texture is grainy and the taste is offensive, but it gets the job done.
How does he like the real thing? In mind.
Whole Plant Food Based Queso
(Various Whole Foods) This vegan queso wins the award for best improvement. I first tried it last summer during the pandemic, and its water consistency was almost as sad as the state of the world at the time. During the year, the recipe must have been adjusted. The water quality has all but disappeared, leaving a commendable, musky vegan queso in its place.
How does he like the real thing? It won me over.