Few things are worse than a vegan dish that turns a classic, nutrition-free delight into a “health food.” I do 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 queso, the cheesy, peppery sauce that may show up drizzled over migas, smothering an enchilada, or, in its best form, on a chip. When I dip a chip into a bowl of cheesy gooey seasoned goodness, my first thought should be “Yum!” not “This is sure to regulate my blood sugar!”
Many carnivores swear by Velveeta and Ro-Tel as the holy grail ingredients in their queso (also known as “chile con queso” when it’s in trouble). No matter what’s mixed into it, processed cheese is usually the foundation, creating a texture that’s not too velvety, not too watery, but just right. Even when it isn’t spicy, dairy-based queso always has heat. The best kind has chunks of tomatoes and peppers. The forgivable kind has little clumps of 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 isn’t just about taste. At least 90 percent of the queso I’ve consumed in my life has been during content or downright celebratory times, on a patio, with a cold cocktail within reach. The hallmark of a good queso is that the very act of dipping into 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 wade into the land of vegan queso, is this combination of distinct taste and good-time vibes. Thankfully, the great state of Texas is full of vegan options that fit the bill. I took my 34 years of experience with real cheese queso and 2 years with cashew-based versions on a statewide road trip, and compared the animal product–free dishes with my memories of their cheesy predecessors.
(Dallas) This Black-owned vegan restaurant was my first experience eating fresh vegan queso blanco, the white-cheese version of standard yellow-cheese queso. Though this vegan queso’s texture was unexpectedly thick, I was thrilled by the abundant amount of fresh pico de gallo mixed within. Every chip was full of gooey cheese, fresh tomatoes, peppers, and spices. What’s not to love?
How is it most like the real thing? Pico integration.
(Houston) A good queso is well blended: not too watery and not too thick. Local Foods nails my queso consistency criterion with its cashew queso. Unlike other quesos that only taste like chiles have been added, Local Foods vegan queso actually has dollops of vegan chorizo and pico de gallo right in the middle, making for a deeply satisfying vegan treat.
How is it most 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 that resembles a staple like queso. To make plant-based queso taste good enough to conjure the effortless fun of a summer evening spent on a Texan’s patio, restaurants have to get inventive. Spiral Diner’s “nacho cheese,” as it terms its vegan queso offering, exceeds these expectations. The cheese glides onto 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 nuts.”
How is it most like the real thing? Flavor.
(San Antonio) This Mexican, woman-owned vegan restaurant has mastered the art of vegan queso. It looks like queso and possesses the texture of queso. If you, like me, spent hot summers days outside at track meets or in vacation Bible school, your taste buds will instantly recall the delicious flavor of heavily processed Great Value nacho cheese chili dogs. Vegan Avenue on Main offers a fresh take on this nostalgic flavor profile, without the animal products or bible verses.
How is it most like the real thing? Tastes like childhood.
(Various H-E-B, Central Market, and Whole Foods locations) This queso is just as fun as its packaging, which features dancing, sunbathing cashews. I’ve tried the spicy, pea-based chorizo, and medium varieties, and none of them disappointed. (Upon first opening the package, your resident vegan queso skeptic might point to its slightly watery texture, but just give it a stir.) A gussied-up Credo, served with fresh chopped peppers, also serves as the base for the dish at Veracruz All Natural in Austin. Order with the watermelon margarita.
How is it most like the real thing? Flavor.
The Honest Stand (Plant-Based Classic Cheddar Dip)
(Various locations) With dozens of stores in Texas, Natural Grocers has brought vegan foods like queso to some unlikely places, including Amarillo. The Honest Stand’s plant-based cheese dip is, yes, cheesy, but it’s also slightly sweet. This unexpected sweetness, courtesy of the carrots and tapioca in the ingredients list, makes the Honest Stand the most versatile of the grocery-store offerings. I drizzled it over my breakfast tacos, Buddha bowls, and chips.
How is it most like the real thing? Versatility, thanks to the sweetness.
(Various H-E-B, Central Market, and Whole Foods locations) I lovingly 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 find the real Tex-Mex experience. I depended on this brand. The texture is grainy and the flavor is inoffensive, but it gets the job done.
How is it most like the real thing? In spirit.
Whole Foods Plant-Based Queso
(Various Whole Foods locations) This vegan queso wins the award for most improved. I first tried it last summer during the pandemic, and its watery consistency was almost as sad as the state of the world at the time. Over the year, the recipe must have been adjusted. The watery quality has all but disappeared, leaving a commendable, musky vegan queso in its place.
How is it most like the real thing? It won me over.