- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
One of the main gripes I used to hear from people about Chipotle was its lack of queso. You can serve all the humanely raised meat you want, but in Texas, if you’re going to serve Tex-Mex, you better have queso.
Of course, the inherent problem with Chipotle and queso is that the company has long made its name on sourcing conscientiously and serving products with no added colors, preservatives or flavors. And, if you look under the hood on many quesos, you’re going to find products like EZ Melt, Extra Melt and Velveeta. Not exactly paragons of nature’s bounty.
Anyone who’s made queso at home using natural cheese knows that it can be tricky to get the same flavor and consistency as dips made with the products mentioned above. Something had to give. And, Chipotle decided it wasn’t its all-natural ethos.
The company recently rolled out its queso nationwide, earning a lot of catcalls on Twitter and clapbacks from other websites. Even Goldman Sachs got skittish about Chipotle stock following the release. This Texan decided he needed to try it.
The verdict: It’s hard to make all-natural queso taste good. The large bowl ($5.40 with a bag of chips) had a slightly gloopy consistency with a interspersed chalkiness. It is obviously a mixture of milk and sharp cheddar, and the predominant flavor from the cheese is an astringent bitterness that lingers after the initial wave of smoky chipotle pepper, cumin and jalapeno dies. It kind of tastes like what I imagine biting into the hardened, dried edge of a block of cheddar would. Any bit of sweetness from tomato paste or yellow onion hid in the gloop.
So, kudos to Chipotle for trying to do things the right way, but there’s a reason some people will always want their queso to be a little fake. Also, take it from someone who ate queso at 10-plus places earlier this year for an abandoned story: most queso isn’t that great anyway.
For the record, my current favorite queso in town is served at Fresa’s.
Former Parkside executive chef Nathan Lemley and his partner, chef Sarah Heard, have purchased Foreign & Domestic Austin from founding chef Ned Elliott. Both chefs are alumni of the North Loop restaurant that Elliott opened in 2010, with Lemley, a three-year veteran of Foreign & Domestic, serving as Elliott’s original sous chef.
“I’m really proud of them and very happy for them. They’re going to do awesome and breathe new life into the place,” Elliott said of Heard and Lemley.
The partners say they have small changes planned for the restaurant that will keep the same name and general look, but judging by their early Instagram posts, it seems diners should expect thoughtful contemporary bistro fare.
“It’s pretty much every chef’s dream restaurant: Small, open kitchen, cool neighborhood, adventurous clientele,” Lemley and Heard said in a text message. “We love the concept, but we’ll put our own touches on the food and service.”
Pulled by his longing for home and out of concern for the health of his mothers, Elliott will return to his native Cincinnati next summer to open a Foreign & Domestic there. He says the Cincinnati restaurant will be about twice the size of the Austin location and feature a raw bar and private dining space.
Elliott will also turn his attention to Houston, with plans to open a restaurant there late next year. He is in negotiations for a location in the Bellaire neighborhood and says those plans would include a restaurant four times the size of the Austin location. Elliott wants the Houston location to be “more of a hangout than fine dining” and says diners will be able to enjoy a range of options, from hamburgers during the week to three-course dinners on the weekend.
Elliott intends to spend about half his time in Cincinnati and then divide the other half between Houston and Austin, and says while he has a future possibility in Austin that he wants to “take a step back and do more big picture things and invest in young talent.”
When Elliott and his then-wife, Jodi Elliott, veterans of restaurants such as Per Se, Gramercy Tavern and Bouley in New York, opened the restaurant in a former skateboard shop and homebrew store in 2010, they were at the cutting edge of the food scene in Austin, bringing national trends like nose-to-tail dining to a city that was at the cusp of becoming one of the nation’s darling upstarts. The restaurant, which had an early menu featuring items like bone marrow croquettes, crispy pig ears, venison heart tartare and sublime popovers, earned Statesman restaurant critic Mike Sutter’s nod for best new restaurant in 2010. Foreign & Domestic was a staple in the Austin360 Dining Guide Top 25 for years, earning a Top 10 ranking four of the last five years.
In addition to elevating what Austinites could expect not just from restaurants but specifically from a neighborhood restaurant, Elliott also celebrated young talent from around the country, for several years hosting the annual Indie Chefs Week, a week of collective dinners from rising star chefs from across the world.
Jodi Elliott currently operates Bribery Bakery in the Wells Branch neighborhood and recently closed her shop at Mueller.
The New Waterloo team (La Condesa, Sway and the restaurants at the South Congress Hotel) has opened French bistro Le Politique . The restaurant, located on the first floor of the Northshore (110 San Antonio St.), serves lunch, mid-day, dinner and brunch menus with offerings like oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels and lobster, and a roster of brasserie classics like steak frites, roasted chicken, boudin blanc and gnocchi with roasted vegetables. The bar re-creates classic French cocktails using Texas ingredients and features a selection of French wines and beer.
The kitchen is led by the husband-and-wife culinary team of executive chef Derek Salkin and executive pastry chef Alyssa Hurlstone. Salkin came to Austin from Pao, New Waterloo and chef Paul Qui’s collaboration with the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach. He has previously worked at Jean Georges, the Modern, and Thomas Keller’s Per Se and the French Laundry.
Founding Barley Swine and Odd Duck partner chef Sam Hellman-Mass announced in June that he’d be opening Mexican restaurant Suerte in East Austin later this year, and he announced recently that he’d be joined in the kitchen by executive chef Fermín Núñez.
Núñez, a former chef de cuisine at Launderette, who has also worked at La Condesa and Uchiko, will help guide a kitchen dedicated to making masa in house and will create cuisine “inspired by his memories of growing up between North Mexico and South Texas and his travels in Mexico and around the world.”
“Fermín cooks with refined technique and finesse yet delivers a laid-back experience you truly can’t put into words until you’ve tried it yourself,” Hellman-Mass said. “He has put his heart and soul into creating a menu that makes your world a little bit bigger with each dish you try. I can’t wait for Austin to meet him and see what he’s all about.”
John Michael Williams, a former general manager at Barley Swine, will join Núñez and Hellman-Mass as part of the leadership team, serving as general manager at the restaurant slated to open at 1800 E. Sixth St. in the former home of Dario’s before the end of the year. Instagrammers can keep an eye on what Núñez has in store by following the restaurant at instagram.com/suerteatx.
Russo’s New York Pizzeria opened earlier this month at the Arboretum at 10721 Research Boulevard. It is local owner Amin Esar’s second Austin-area location of the chain pizzeria (the first is in Pflugerville). Started by chef Anthony Russo, Russo’s New York Pizzeria has 47 locations across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida and Hawaii.
One of my Top 10 pizza places from my 2015 list has closed. House Pizzeria on Airport Boulevard, a 2016 Austin360 Dining Guide Critic’s Pick, closed last week, according to a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page. The restaurant opened in a green-renovated KFC building in 2009 and was an early mover in the Austin restaurant scene in bringing unexpected quality and craft to casual food. It also helped spur the renaissance of Airport Boulevard as a dining destination. In addition to great pizzas and fresh salads, House also featured an excellent jukebox and strong local beer selection. House was No. 6 on my list of the best pizza places in Austin in 2015 and would certainly have had a spot in the Top 10 were the list updated today.