Big Cheese

Oaky's Tex-Mex Arrives on a Wave of Queso

Wood Shop BBQ's taco- and burrito-focused sibling returns as a proper restaurant in the Central District.

By Allecia Vermillion September 23, 2021

Clearly yellow cheese dip isn't the only thing happening on the Oaky's menu.

The Central District’s excellent Wood Shop BBQ has a new Tex-Mex sibling, right across the street on Jackson. Oaky’s Tex-Mex began in 2019 with a short-lived tenure as a counter at Batch 206 Distillery in Interbay; this new version is a more fully realized queso-drenched version of what owners Matt Davis and James Barrington first envisioned on an inadvertent research trip from Austin to California.

The duo has made a few such trips to Texas to retrieve smokers for Wood Shop. While carting their very first smoker (name: Ladybird) home to Seattle, says Davis, “we stopped at every restaurant we could possibly find that had queso.”

That delightfully artificial mother sauce of Tex-Mex runs through Oaky’s menu like a gooey, unnaturally bright river. But the version at Oaky’s 2.0 isn’t the queso blanco from the Interbay days. Mike Kramer, the restaurants' manager of all things culinary, put in significant R&D to come up with a properly yellow version, thanks to the magic of processed cheese. The trick, says Davis, was finding the right processed cheese. Sure, you can use Velveeta, “but it’s just going to taste like Velveeta.”

You can definitely order queso for dipping, or atop loaded fries. But diners can also smother all sorts of menu items in the stuff—burritos, chalupas, your general feelings of pandemic-induced anxiety. Back at the original Oaky’s, the ordering software had a special button that just said “put queso on it.” Davis promises that same latitude at the restaurant. “You can put queso on literally anything.”

Though the dishes on this menu (much larger than the one from the counter days) don’t exactly need a cheesy assist. The kitchen takes advantage of its proximity to Wood Shop and the flavor enhancements achieved with smoke and fire. Chiles get blistered in the smoker to deliver extra nuance in house salsa. Brisket gets a 10-hour smoke before it’s braised into barbacoa. The house meats—carne asada, chicken verde, carnitas—that fill Oaky’s tacos, burritos, and enchiladas received just as much R&D as the queso. The al pastor pork belly looks especially promising. Ditto the churros with ganache for dipping.

While Wood Shop stays relatively faithful to Kansas City–style barbecue traditions, those smoker-towing road trips opened Davis’s eyes to a Lone Star landscape of Hill Country barbecue and Tex-Mex. And places, like Valentina’s in Austin, where the two commingle creatively. “We’re trying not to just stick barbecue in a tortilla,” says Davis.

Those road trips (and countless hours listening to the Highwaymen) also inspired the Jen Ament mural that fills an entire wall of Oaky’s sand- and sepia-toned dining room. Oaky’s isn’t a big place, to be sure, but the layout cannily streamlines the takeout process and creates a separate space for customers who dine in. The bar area offers both adult respite from the dining room’s friendly vibes and an ambitious surprise of a cocktail list, courtesy of manager Sofija Cuturilo.

Right now, Oaky’s is open for dinner; Davis says brunch is a priority as soon as the city’s tight staffing situation allows. Meanwhile, he’s busy winterizing the patio across the street at Wood Shop, and expanding into part of the former Broadcast Coffee space next door. “We’re trying to put down some pretty serious roots in the neighborhood.”

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