At the beginning of the shutdown, Fridays were for frozen pizza. It was the only night I didn’t cook, and it was a huge relief at the end of each week. (Even food writers get sick of cooking, promise.) But Friday night’s treat quickly became Tuesday lunch’s reality, and I needed a no-brainer comfort food to replace it.
Enter King Ranch casserole. I noticed the dish popping up on takeout menus all over the state. This pile of chicken, tortilla, creamy sauce, cheese, chiles, and tomatoes is comfort food at its finest. And it’s easy: the original homemade version calls for not much more than shredding leftover roast chicken, opening a few cans of cream-of-fill-in-the-blank soup and tomato with chiles, and baking this mixture layered with tortillas and cheddar cheese. It’s a specialty of tired parents and doting grandparents. (Texas Monthly’s 2013 story on Rebecca Rather’s from-scratch recipe remains one of our most popular recipes online.)
So why were all these restaurants making them? Curiosity struck. I decided to dedicate my Friday nights to research.
Once I started looking for them, I found King Ranch casseroles everywhere. And not just in Austin, where I live. Superstar chefs Chris Shepherd, in Houston, and Jason Dady, in San Antonio, are both serving them as part of their lineup for H-E-B’s restaurant partnership program. Shepherd says King Ranch casserole is a big seller. “I’ll be honest, though. I didn’t expect people to get as excited as they have,” he says. But “people are loving it, so we will continue to make it for them—anything we can do to provide a little bit of comfort right now.” His version is fairly straightforward, opting for chips over tortillas.
Fort Worth’s Hot Box Biscuit Club developed its own riff on the casserole named after the popular miniseries Tiger King. “When all of this madness started, we instantly reverted back to the things that comforted us,” says chef Sarah Hooten. Their Tiger King Casserole takes the classic King Ranch filling and tops it with cornmeal biscuits instead of tortillas. “We’ve run it three to four times over the past two months, and it sells out every time.”
Goodfriend Package, in Dallas, started selling sandwiches to go and later added King Ranch casserole and lasagnas in response to customers asking for more take-and-bake items. “We have been trying to focus on comfort food as much as we can,” says owner Matt Tobin. I asked him why King Ranch casserole in particular. “It’s good,” he says. “It makes people feel good. I hope that’s not too vague. It’s true.”
It definitely made me feel a little better, three Fridays in a row. Here’s a look at what I sampled:
Friday No. 1: Scholz Garten
One of the oldest businesses in Texas was not messing around. Its casserole was much bigger than most take-and-bakes; it could have fed six. I cut the disposable aluminum baking dish in half, literally, with scissors, and dropped it off on a friend’s porch. (They moved two blocks from my house a couple months back, and my brain can’t quite parse that they’ve lived so close for so long. I still haven’t seen the inside of their new place. It will have to wait.) A poblano cream sauce replaced the typical cream-of soup. The chicken was smoked, and there were chips instead of tortillas. It was delicious; more importantly, I didn’t have to make it. It also came with a salad. For health!
Friday No. 2: Sawyer & Co.
On the way to this East Austin diner a few weeks ago, I encountered a phenomenon I thought had fallen victim to the pandemic: a traffic jam. Interstate 35 was completely locked up at rush hour, much to my surprise and dismay, so I zigzagged through a nearly abandoned East Austin. I have to admit I was disappointed when I saw this casserole; it was small and precooked and looked like it was literally just someone’s leftovers from the fridge. I needn’t have worried: Sawyer & Co.’s version turned out to be my favorite. The delicate layers stayed intact upon serving, with just the right amount of cream-of-mushroom flavor and melted cheese.
Friday No. 3: Eldorado Cafe
This Tex-Mex spot has an extremely serious curbside pickup situation. Twenty spots with colorful chairs lined up in a row, anticipating Friday night takeout crowds. But at 4:30, I was the only one there. The only round casserole of the three, the Eldorado dish was filled with huge pieces of mushroom and red pepper. It crumbled upon serving—could have used more cheese to glue it together—but it was spicy and tasty. And, like the other casseroles, it hit the spot at the end of a long workweek.