It’s hard to say when my brother, Nick, and I first began our love affair with the nacho, but my best guess is the early ’90s, at a restaurant called Chadwick’s in Washington, D.C. The restaurant had long been a family favorite for its tasty burgers and kid-friendly booths, but once Nick and I tasted the nachos, it became the only place we ever wanted to go.
To our developing palates, that platter represented a new frontier in food—we were entranced by the competing textures of the beans, melted cheese and crispy tortilla chips; the many ways to strategically attack the towering pile; and the freedom to reach across the table without fear of parental castigation. Recently, we returned to our old stomping grounds to find the nachos disappointingly middling (they were poorly layered and blighted by a thin, cold guacamole). But in those early days, we had already begun to sense something that we would not truly understand until many, many years later: Nachos are like sex—even bad ones are better than most other things.
Slowly but surely, nachos were becoming more than a favorite food for my brother and me—they were becoming an obsession.
Childhood ski trips out west introduced us to a new echelon of nachos. At higher altitudes, ski bums hunted down Colorado-style Mexican grub and “balls-deep” powder with equal enthusiasm. It was at Powerhouse Bar and Grill in Crested Butte where we first discovered that our East Coast standards were laughably low: These nachos displayed a combination of formidable size and precise stacking that we had never seen before, and the chicken was cooked to order on mesquite grills. It’s worth noting that it was during that same trip that my dad gave me my first Playboy. The magazine stayed under my mattress for the next six years, but the hankering in my heart for Powerhouse remains to this day.
Slowly but surely, nachos were becoming more than a favorite food for my brother and me—they were becoming an obsession. A few years later, inside a little log cabin at the base of Big Sky in Montana, we were introduced to yet another piece of the nacho puzzle: fried-to-order tortilla chips, sizzling with oil and retaining just the right amount of crispiness to sustain hefty toppings. (Returning to Big Sky some years later, we discovered that the restaurant in question had tragically burned down.)
Later, when Nick enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison—a bona fide mecca of Midwest nacho-making—I suspected that it was more than the academics that drew him there. Sure enough, the Great Dane Pub’s Nakoma Nachos moved into our all-time top ten by defying the stigma of tricolored chips (too often used to distract from mediocrity) and exhibiting a bold system of layering to ensure that no naked chip was left behind.
Next page: A brief history of nachos…