If you read this website with any degree of frequency, it should come as no surprise that within the First We Feast offices, nachos reign supreme. Last year, we devoted an entire week to exploring every aspect of the dish, from proper cheese selection and current trends, to beer pairings and the role of nachos in rap lyricism.
Much of our nacho philosophy, as well as the experiences that inform it, can be found in this essay. But with Super Bowl Sunday on the horizon—one of the year’s best days for nacho-making—we thought it prudent to distill our best tips into one simple treatise that we hope will guide you to greatness this weekend. Here, then, are the 10 Commandments of Nacho-Making.
Thou shalt use fresh chips.
There are a bunch of store-bought corn chips that will suffice for nacho-making, like the Xochitl brand that you can get at Whole Foods. But if you really want do things right, you have to either fry your own, or buy fresh-made chips from a local tortilla-maker. The DIY approach is incredibly easy, just a bit time-consuming: Simply quarter taco-size corn tortillas, drop them in hot canola oil until they are nicely browned and no longer pliable, then salt liberally when they come out of the oil so that the salt sticks to the chips. The reason for going the extra mile is that no packaged chips will ever have the combined crispiness and sturdiness of a fresh batch.
Thou shalt not dismiss cheese sauces.
Frank Liberto, the father of stadium-style nachos, introduced his now infamous Ricos cheese sauce at Arlington Stadium in 1976. His pioneering efforts made the dish a stadium staple and the butt of some really poor jokes. Years later, Liberto’s recipe doesn’t excite taste buds like it once did—you won’t find Joe Buck extolling its virtues this weekend in homage to Howard Cosell. However, don’t leave cheese sauce for dead. Why? Sauce maximizes coverage. Pork Slope’s Dale Talde views cheese sauce as an essential element. We like to use it as a creamy layer beneath a browned, crispier layer of shredded cheese. This point speaks to a broader truth of nacho cheese selection: Your cheese does not have to pack intense flavor. Rather, it can be an important textural element in the overall package.
Thou shalt not be overly reliant on meat.
Let’s be clear: BBQ-style nachos, popular in Memphis and other Southern cities where smoked meats reign supreme, are an important regional nacho variant, and they can be extremely delicious. However, the less successful versions are prime examples of one of the fundamental misconceptions about the dish, which is that more meat is always better. More cheese is almost always better, but for everything else, balance is key. If you’re eating a mouthful of meat with little shards of tortilla adding some crunch, you might as well be eating a Frito pie. Remember that the original nachos simply had cheese, jalapenos, and tortillas, and to this day, few things can beat that trifecta.
Thou shalt use condiments with acid.
When you’re used to eating heavy-duty bar nachos, laden with cheese and chili and sour cream, it’s easy to forget that nachos—like all dishes—can benefit greatly from balance. Specifically, an acidic element that can cut through the richness of cheese and meat. Getting fancy with things like cilantro-lime chicken can be too heavy-handed; instead, let your acid come from condiments. The absolute best way to achieve this is with a freshly made, tart-and-spicy pico de gallo. Homemade guacamole with plenty of lime juice also works well.
Thou shalt respect the power of peppers.
Hot sauce has no place in the nacho universe. Heat should come from fresh or pickled chile peppers. Jalapeños are standard. Habaneros are for the brave. Both will provide the proper kick on their own, or in concert with your pico de gallo. Use peppers judiciously, and learn to play on the unique flavor of each variety.
Thou shalt leave no dry chips behind.
This is just nacho-making 101. If you get to the bottom of the pile and there’s a sad scattering of bare chips left behind, you have failed yourself and your country. There are two keys to avoiding this unfortunate predicament: 1) Always use more cheese than you think you need, and 2) Add core toppings—cheese, beans, meat—to each layer before cooking, even if you save certain flourishes for the top.
Thou shalt drain your beans.
No, filthy reader, that is not a euphemism, but rather a reminder to be conscientious about your legumes. Generally speaking, black beans trump all others for nachos (exception: simple bean-and-cheese nachos should be made with refrieds). You need not precook them before putting them on top of your nachos, but you must always drain them. Excessive moisture kills perfect nachos; let it come from sour cream and salsa, not bean juice.
Thou shalt not limit nachos to Tex-Mex.
Nachos may have started on the border (shout out to Ignacio Anaya), but expanding the potential of the dish means shedding outdated restrictions. Nachos are a vehicle for flavor, and as such they are an ideal canvas for all sorts of regional and international riffs. Do you love Thai larb? There is a place for you at our table—a round one with a spinning center, where experimentation is celebrated. Some mashups just don’t work (see: red-sauce nachos with mozzarella and marinara), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Thou shalt not use flavored chips.
Have you ever been mortified by a plate of nachos made with Doritos? We have. And we love Doritos—in proper context. Nachos should allow toppings and cheese to sing, with chips serving as the ideal crunchy vehicle. Though there are a few exceptions—so called “Irish nachos,” built with waffle fries instead if tortillas, can be good with a pint of Guinness—one must draw the line at pita chips and the like. Even multi-colored corn chips are a no-no.
Thou shalt share thy nachos.
We have gotten in many heated arguments about the pros and cons of individually topped nachos, in which each chip is optimized with the ideal amount of toppings. It solves some inherent problems of nacho construction, like the dry-chip conundrum, but there’s a sort of OCD severity to it that’s antithetical to the joy of pulling the perfect, fully-loaded chip from a pile and watching the cheese stretch out before finally breaking away. Our stance on this matter has evolved over the years, and we’re willing to concede that the pile is not the only way to go. One belief we still hold dear, however, is that nachos are meant to be shared. Few foods have such fundamental communal appeal, and we can tell you from experience that nothing says loneliness like nachos for one.