According to the Internet goon squad that governs such things, today is National Nachos Day. Being of the reasonable opinion that made-up food holidays are awful and every day should be “nacho day,” this news fills me with negative sentiment about one of the few things for which I feel unconditional love. But it’s okay—I’m going to ride out this feeling and use it to get something off my chest that I’ve been holding in for too long: New York is a terrible nacho town.
I love New York. I love nachos. But the place I have chosen to live turns out to be a pretty dismal place for a nacho fiend to call home.
Even as the city has made strides to brand itself a legit “BBQ town,” improve its pizza regionalism, and master every burger style under the sun, nachos have been largely ignored—despite the fact that they would appear to be an ideal canvas for today’s comfort food-obsessed chefs. Just look at what the New York chefs who competed in our First We Feast Nacho Battle came up with. It honestly hurts my heart that the masses can’t get their hands on Michael Anthony’s beer-marinated smoky beef nachos.
There’s a totally untapped nacho brain trust among the NYC culinary ranks, but that’s only part of the problem. Nachos certainly don’t need to be fancy or creative to be great, but even our dive bars, big-box restaurants, and Irish pubs stumble where other city’s flourish.
I’ve tried to get to the bottom of why New York and nachos are such awkward bedfellows, and I have a few theories:
Nachos are surprisingly expensive to make. When people come over and my brother and I make nachos for 4-6 friends, we often use up to $75 worth of ingredients. A lot of people think that sounds crazy, but the fact is, good nachos have a ton of shit on them. To get proper coverage, the cheese part alone requires staggering quantities. Within the tight margins of New York bars and restaurants, I’d guess nachos are a loss-leader: Each serving supplies a lot of food, but people expect the dish to be cheap. The age of the $25 haute burger may be upon us, but it’s likely that people would freak out if they saw a similar price tag on a nacho platter.
Bar food has been entirely hijacked by mooks. It’s not just nachos that get the short end of the stick—it’s potato skins, mozzarella sticks, and all the other classics of the bar-food canon. Instead we have wild-boar terrines, deviled eggs up the yazoo, and truffle-ized everything. It’s a damn shame.
Nouveau Brooklyn doesn’t understand nachos. You would think that nachos would flourish in Brooklyn, where nostalgia and gussied-up junk food are the prevailing culinary memes. Yet beyond the taquerias of Sunset Park and a handful of bars (Waterfront Ale House venison-chili nachos are a classic by New York standards), I’ve had very few serviceable nachos in the borough. I don’t fully know the reason, but one thing I’ve noticed is that Brooklyn chefs have a bad habit of “improving” things that don’t need to be improved (e.g., ketchup), and then getting nostalgic about crappy products that could be improved (e.g., Tater Tots). And so you see a lot of nachos with terrible, stadium-style cheese sauce and a bunch of DIY pickling projects on top, thus entirely missing the point. Just to show you how confused people are: El Gato Nacho—a nacho “pop-up” at Smorgasburg and Videology Bar & Cinema in Williamsburg—puts greasy Hudson Valley duck confit and acrid “black truffle” cheddar cheese sauce on nachos. No, no, no.
New York has not embraced Tex-Mex. While other bastardized cuisines have flourished among the fooderati (see: new-school Italian-American at Carbone, fancy Jewish-Chinese at Red Farm), Tex-Mex has yet to have its moment. Meanwhile, Bar Amá is one of L.A.’s most exciting restaurants, and it has a daily “Super Nacho Hour.” We’re losing.
Juice bars. Not sure why, but I’m just going to blame them for this.
All that said, there is hope. From the pages of the New York Times to the menu at Top Chef alum Dale Talde’s Pork Slope, nachos are creeping back into the mainstream. And amid all the hiccups, we still have some shining examples of nacho greatness to lead the way—go out and get some today.
5 Great Nachos in NYC
Despite widespread failure, it’s not all doom and gloom out there. Here are my favorite nachos in NYC right now:
Address and phone: 129 2nd Ave (646-422-7871)
The East Village was in need of a truly great Cali-style taqueria to feed the drunken hordes, and it got one in this cubbyhole space on Second Avenue. The burritos and quesadillas both on point, but the carnitas nachos put Diana in a class of its own. What’s special about this platter is that it achieves the proper portions of a plate of nachos (I believe the technical term is fucking massive) without sacrificing any quality. Sturdy, house-fried chips stand up to the onslaught of super-succulent pork, mild white cheddar (there could be more of it, but that is one of the only knocks on this dish), beans of your choice (I go pinto), plenty of guacamole and sour cream, and pickled carrots and jalapeños to balance out the salty richness. The towering mound, served on a utilitarian metal tray, really captures the beautiful chaos of nachos, revealing its well-planned layers as you burrow deeper. Somewhat awesomely, you can only eat standing up here, which is probably for the best—you need leverage on these bad boys.
Address and phone: 21 Greenpoint Ave, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (718-383-8833)
Sometimes, so-called “hipster Brooklyn” gets things right, and more often than not the magic happens in Greenpoint. At Riverstyx, Chef Dennis Spina provides the type of bar food you’ve come to expect from the borough, like chicken-liver pâté (very delicious, for the record) and a spin on a kale Caesar salad, but his menu also demonstrates a keener sense of what makes for good drinking food: chicken Milanese, for example, and a fat disc of pizza dough topped with mortadella and pecorino (the “Big Chef”). The nachos have a couple miscues that might make you think they are another Brooklyn fail: “appetizer” and “entrée” portions ignore proper nacho nomenclature (i.e., “nachos” and “super nachos”), and the arrangement of garnishes—cilantro on the stalk, radishes, carrots en escabeche—seems intent upon convincing you that this is some sort of salad. It is not. Instead, it is the city’s best example of cheese-sauce nachos (runner-up: The Commodore), celebrating the glory of American cheese, heavy cream, and Frank’s Red Hot melted into a gloppy mess. With this in mind, those fuccboi accoutrement suddenly serve a purpose, balancing the creaminess of the sauce. Forget the Instagram and eat as quickly as possible: Like all cheese-sauce nachos, these deteriorate rapidly as they begin to cool.
Address and phone: 237 E 116th St (212-860-4875)
Mexican restaurant nachos, as opposed to Tex-Mex or bar nachos, are a very specific thing. Taquerias in Sunset Park and Spanish Harlem have all the necessary ingredients to produce a respectable nacho platter, but it’s rarely a focus of the menu (moreso a concession to gringos). Particularly at sit-down restaurants, the presentation can be quite artful, generally involving well-composed garnishes like sliced radishes and shredded lettuce, and expertly deployed crema. My favorite example of the style is at El Paso on 116th Street, where double-thick tortilla chips, rich chorizo, and cilantro-laced guacamole anchor the standout platter. Another plus: Chihuahua to round out the more common Jack and Muenster.
Address and phone: 207 W 14th St (212-858-5001)
I once said on television that there should a statue erected of chef Julian Medina in Times Square to honor him for bringing legit Mexican food to midtown at Toloache. (Probably why I have not been asked to appear on TV since.) But the fact that he has also made nachos available 24 hours a day at Coppelia—properly cheffed-up ones, too, with tender roasted short rib, Cuban black beans, and a gouda-and-muenster cheese combo—is further evidence of his commitment to making New York a better place.
Address and phone: 259 Vesey St (212-233-2500)
Turn up your nose at big-box restaurants all you want, but the fact is these places understand nachos better than most of your favorite chefs. At this Stephen Starr complex in Battery Park City, the kitchen combines two nacho tropes—the single-chip layering technique favored by chains like TGI Friday’s, and the studied composition common at proper Mexican restaurants—and combines them into one gorgeous platter that looks more like a thin-crust pizza. A canvas of crunchy chips, black beans, smoky salsa, and pickled red onions is held together by a blanket of white cheddar and Monterey Jack, then decorated with a cross-hatch pattern of crema. It hits upon all the positives of the single-layer style (namely, every chip has equal covering) while being large enough to avoid the annoying situation where you have to spoil the party by divvying up a specific amount of chips among the group.