In Memoriam: El VAQ (El Vaquero - Stillwater, OK)
By John Hardaway
Consumer of White Queso
In early September, “El Vaq” fans were shocked by the news of the sudden closing of the longtime Stillwater Mexican restaurant favorite.
It was a long and delicious devotion for me and so many others who loved it; a nearly-20-yearlong yellow brick road paved with tamales, burritos and enchiladas and grilled beef tips, bonded together in White Queso, and lined on both sides with endless baskets of warm crunchy tortilla chips.
El Vaq opened in 1999. Before it was El Vaquero it was Bobos Mexican Restaurant, which I remember going to as well when I was in middle school and high school, but was too young to recall what I ate or thought about it other than my parents liked going there.
At that time, I probably got something lame like plain soft tacos and was just hoping we got to go to Braum’s afterwards for some ice cream.
My story with El Vaq begins in January of 2000 (thank goodness we survived Y2K!) at OSU when I was taken to El Tap (El Tapitio), first cousin of El Vaq (same White Queso and menu, pretty much, just much smaller place) for the first time by the nearly legendary brothers Joey and Jayme Ross.
Joey was an All-State basketball player at Carmen-Dacoma (not open any longer), who in high school led the Raiders to an epic 9-8 (yes that was the final score) basketball win over rival Waynoka, led by current Chisholm coach Corey Miller.
The score was 8-8 at halftime and if you know or coached against delay master Ken Jones (Opossum), this doesn’t surprise you at all.
Jayme was a three sport stud at Waynoka and probably the most feared dunk ball player at OSU during his time there.
He was basically the Desmond Mason, also on campus at the time, of the Stillwater Dunk Ball court circuit. The low goal rims and any frat boy in his way were both hurting afterwards.
So Joey and Jayme take me to EL Tap, and as soon as we sit down, they order a massive bowl of White Queso. When it hit the table and my first chip was drowned in that glorious cheese sauce, it was love at first bite. I mean, I literally couldn’t believe how good it was.
So good, in fact, I ordered another bowl just for myself and then poured it all over my #9 (Enchilada, Chili Relleno and Tamale) which was the recommendation from Joey and Jayme back then.
We frequented El Tap often, at least once a week, but as our friend group at OSU grew, both in numbers and belt sizes for some of us, we started making the drive out to El Vaq, mainly for the space and super quick service.
El Vaq was a big place, always lots of room, and for a big group of guys there really wasn’t a better place in Stillwater.
Table for 2, table for 4, table for 10, table for 20. Didn’t matter. Never a wait, always a table available in front of a TV with a game on and an endless supply of chip baskets and White Queso.
At some point during my sophomore year of college, for sure my Junior and senior years, and almost every single time after that until a month ago, it was El Vaq.
For about a 3-4-year stretch, me and college friends would go to El Vaq 2-3 times a week. Heck, 2-3 times a single weekend.
It was that good and we loved it that much.
After college, my wife and I lived in Stillwater so the loyalty towards El Vaq continued, at least once a week no doubt.
There were family dinners, friend outings, birthday parties, date nights, before games, after games, after church, lunch whenever and for whatever reason.
Basically, find any reason to go to El Vaq.
In 2012, we moved from Stillwater to Cashion. Stillwater has several really good places to eat (Thai Café, Hideaway, Coney Island) but over the years, El Vaq was the one I missed the most.
If ever I was in Stillwater or just driving through Stillwater, we were either dining in or getting it to go, which would always be ready in 10 minutes after the call-in and still be warm after the 45-minute drive home.
Admittedly a full White Queso cup rarely made the trip the home.
Also, El Vaq is the best leftover food ever, even better than Thanksgiving leftovers or pizza. Warm it up in the microwave and it’s basically the same as when it came hot out of the kitchen for dine-in.
For me personally, my consistent go-to over all the years was the #20 (Chicken Enchilada, Pork Tamale and Beef Burrito), especially for take-out.
Dining in, their Fajitas Especial with the chorizo and shrimp was so good as well as the Burrito Grande, a 10-inch burrito stuffed full of grilled steak tips (pictured below).
Before we moved in 2012, I’m pretty confident I tried about everything on the menu at least once, mainly because I ate there so often, so why not? Wasn’t like I wasn’t coming back in a few days.
I could also easily order for my friends just from the repetition and numerous visits. For Diess, Thunder and Goose it was the Burrito de Cameron (grilled shrimp burrito). For Pain, Jrob, and Nuch it was the Carne Tapatia (grilled beef tips covered in White Queso...pictured below for your viewing pleasure).
Big Rod had his own unique combo which was two combo #’s together (say like the #7 and #23) but he normally leaned towards some tag team of nachos and enchiladas. For Kevo it was enchiladas and BC it was nachos.
Besides my friends, it was my wife and I’s favorite place as well. She likes the #2 (two chicken enchiladas, double beans, no rice). Even after we moved, she continued to work in Stillwater every two weeks or so, and she always got El Vaq to go for us on her way out of town which always made me really happy.
I can say this confidently, without a single ounce of shame, there isn’t a single restaurant on the planet that I have given more of my dining business dollars than El Vaquero.
Doing some rough estimation, it is safe to guess that I have eaten at El Vaq north of 500 times in my life, and might not be a reach to say 1,000.
The grand total of dollars spent and White Queso consumed would be scary for both my potential savings account and arteries.
You see, the White Queso is what hooked me and always kept me coming back, and was the foundation for everything at El Vaq.
I’m convinced, though probably not accurate, that me and my friends are the first ones at El Vaq to not just get the White Queso bowl as the app, but then specifically request it be on everything for the meal.
“Cheese sauce on top of everything” initially and for a while was free.
Then they started charging an additional $1 for it, and then I think that just became the norm and so popular, even outside our friend circle, that they just built the “cheese sauce on top” in the menu price whether your requested it or not.
The White Queso anywhere else, for the rest of my life, will never live up to or be El Vaq White Queso.
Ironically, we got El Vaq to go the day before it closed because we were in town for a family birthday party. That last meal is pictured, halved, so I could save the other half for lunch the next day. It was my favorite, a #20 covered in cheese.
Had I known this would be the last time, I might have chewed a little slower.
El Vaq….I and so many other adoring fans will miss you forever.
RIP EL VAQ.