Queso is as much a thread in the fabric of Austin’s food scene as the city's ubiquitous and beloved breakfast taco (which is actually from San Antonio, but that's an article for another day). Nearly four years ago, when Lone Star State transplant Briana Valdez first opened HomeState, her “Texas kitchen” in East Hollywood, she knew it was a big deal to get the queso right — and she isn’t afraid to admit she missed the mark in her inaugural year of business.
“We opened with really bad queso,” Valdez says. “[Serving bad queso was] so awful because I knew that when Texans came to HomeState and they heard that there finally was a place that had food from their home, that it was going to be a really exciting moment — as it would be for me — and the first thing you’re going to do is try the queso.”
Even though Valdez does enjoy Velveeta "cheese," the gooey and processed main ingredient many Texans rely on as the gold standard for making queso, she wanted to make hers out of real cheese. But actual dairy products are as unpredictable as Velveeta is stable. Perfecting a queso recipe without relying on Velveeta proved to be a difficult feat. It became Valdez’s obsessive quest (she calls it her “queso saga”). But she persisted, and succeeded. Valdez worked with several chefs and, through trial and error, finally got the dip’s viscous texture and flavors right using real cheddar — and is now proud to have this liquid gold on her menu. She calls it “queso 2.0.”
It’s this tenacity that has propelled HomeState to its reputation as the place that put Tex-Mex breakfast tacos on the map in L.A. As HomeState nears its four-year anniversary on Dec. 9, it’s in the midst of another milestone: Valdez is opening a second, bigger location in Highland Park.
Situated on Figueroa Street near Highland Park Bowl and La Cuevita, HomeState’s new digs will be nearly double the size of its East Hollywood location at 1,480 square feet. The original outpost is a diminutive 800. And with the larger space comes extra perks. The menu will pretty much stay the same (think soft flour tortillas hugging different combinations of things like scrambled eggs, chorizo, melted cheddar, refried charro beans and shredded brisket), but this location will stay open through dinner and serve margaritas, including the frozen ones you’d typically find in Austin.
Valdez always liked the idea of opening in Highland Park. She feels the neighborhood has a big sense of community and history, and she wants to incorporate her restaurant into that. “It’s an environment where you can feel at ease with your dog and with your kids running around. If you make a big mess, or you’re here by yourself, or you come really early in your pajamas, it’s not a big deal. It’s just easy.”
For Valdez, in order to make a good breakfast taco, it’s absolutely necessary to have a fresh tortilla, something Austin stalwarts like Veracruz and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ are known for. “The perfect breakfast taco is simple: It’s hot, fresh and on a flour tortilla,” Valdez says. “Whenever you have a fresh tortilla, no matter what happens after that you’re going to win in any contest because the tortilla is what you’re holding, feeling and smelling. It’s the main vessel, so if you can start with a fresh tortilla, you’re leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the pack.”
Valdez, who grew up moving around Texas before living in Austin for college, never had any formal culinary training. As with her queso, she learned how to make all her recipes, including her handmade tortillas, through practice, reading books, watching YouTube videos and talking to her mom for advice. She says her grandmother was also with her in spirit.
“I pulled out a picture of my grandmother and put it in my kitchen and I started trying to make masa,” Valdez says. “We used to listen to Tejano music at her house and I just started trying to channel her. I made a lot of bad tortillas and then just get better and better and started to understand the texture of the dough. I started to really know it, and it was cool. I felt like I was really hanging out with her.”
But the idea for HomeState came after she moved to L.A. “When I left Texas and was living in L.A. and I was looking for breakfast tacos, that’s when I realized they didn’t exist here, and that’s when my longing started,” Valdez says.
Starting a business was a new challenge. “When I was looking for real estate, it was hard for people to take me seriously,” she says. “On top of being a woman, I didn’t have any record of accomplishments; I wasn’t an accomplished chef. I had to try extra hard to prove that I was serious.”
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HomeState's first customer, a Texan transplant with whom she’s become friends, told her that her food made him feel grounded. For Valdez, that's all she needs to know that she’s on the right track.
4624 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 906-1122, myhomestate.com.