Welcome to L.A. Week 2016. To celebrate the rich culinary life of Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week that explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its classic tacos, to its offbeat icons. Follow along on Twitter @firstwefeast.
Josef Centeno is the chef-owner of Bar Amá, Bäco Mercat, Ledlow, and Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles.
Nachos get a bad rap thanks to the stereotype of gooey orange cheese from a can and uninspired tortilla chips, served in a plastic tray at stadiums and movie theaters. But when caressed the right way, nachos can inspire the whole world to rally behind them: warm, lightly salted tortilla chips that are a blank canvas for real queso, made-to-order guacamole, salsa, and cool, silky crema.
I grew up in San Antonio, the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine, and have eaten my share of nachos. And as chef-owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant in Los Angeles, I set out to honor them as part of Tejano culture, a regional American cuisine with its own mix of influences and traditions.
Though nachos weren’t one of those Tex-Mex dishes that your mom usually made at home—like enchiladas verdes, chili con carne, or Mexican fried rice (rice, onions, and tomato paste)—they were part of the food landscape of my childhood. You ate nachos during Missions baseball games, or afterwards at places like Chacho’s, trying to persuade adults to buy you beer, or even at restaurants where a miniature paper flag that said “medium rare” stuck into the middle of your steak signaled “fine dining.”
Monster Kong Nachos from Chacho’s, one of Centeno’s favorite spots in San Antonio. (Photo: Yelp/Denny D.)
When I opened Bar Amá in downtown L.A., it crossed my mind that Angelenos might not embrace Tex-Mex on its own terms. But rooting myself in this scene has shown me Los Angeles is a city that appreciates culinary eccentricities and regional character. In my mind, there was no question that the happy-hour menu would have nachos.
For many Texans, there are generally two types of nachos: 1) tortilla chips piled in the shape of a mountain and topped with cheese, salsa, guacamole, beans, and meat; or 2) the original nachos, where each tortilla chip is topped with a smear of refried beans, melted cheddar cheese, and one slice of jalapeño. As the story goes, this is this way they were first prepared by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at a restaurant in a Mexican town across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, as a late-night snack after the kitchen closed.
In L.A. you might also find nachos topped with béchamel, bulgogi, gochujang, or even truffles. It is a new era for the dish of my childhood.
The original nachos are what I also refer to as Nachos Compuestos. Maybe because that’s what they’re called at M.K. Davis (which was always one of my brother’s haunts), a restaurant in a nearly windowless stucco building on the corner of Flores and Poplar Streets, famous for its 32-ounce schooners that are kept cold in the freezer. On a Friday night in the middle of one of San Antonio’s notoriously sweltering summers, the line might be down the block. With a cold beer and a plate of a dozen Nachos Compuestos, you’d feel as if you could make it through another sweaty August.
I didn’t, though. I left nachos behind when I moved to New York and worked for years in the kitchens of French fine-dining temples. Nobody was eating nachos at Daniel, Vong, or La Côte Basque. And for many years, the thought of nachos slipped from my consciousness. It really wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and eventually opened my own Tex-Mex restaurant that I gave nachos any serious consideration.
In California, I wasn’t beholden to any school of thought or tradition. Bar Amá’s Mexican sriracha has arbol chiles and fish sauce, while the albondigas have raisins and pine nuts in them (someone in my family must have had a Sicilian nonna). Purists might balk, but I don’t draw a lot of lines when it comes to mixing cuisines. Why would I when I also own a Japanese- and Italian-influenced restaurant, and another that draws from Spanish, Eastern Mediterranean, North African, and Asian flavors? I think that’s the original spirit of Tex-Mex, and it’s also the spirit of Los Angeles cuisine.
The Nachos Compuestos at Bar Amá are a single layer of chips, each topped with a small slice of lardo (cured pork fat), black beans, melted cheddar, and pickled jalapeño. The Super Nachos are a pile of chips, layered throughout with housemade queso and guacamole, Mexican crema, and salmorejo—a salsa inspired by an Andalusian tomato sauce. I tend to throw a brunoise of shallots, lemon zest, and chives in everything—a habit I picked up from working in French kitchens. But the Tex-Mex version here is radishes, cilantro, and onion; maybe some pepitas and pomegranate seeds too.
I also serve vegan versions of both (we make cashew cheese for them)—not traditional by any means. But in L.A. you might also find nachos topped with béchamel, bulgogi, gochujang, or even truffles. It is a new era for the dish of my childhood, and one that I’m happy to rediscover over and over again.
Bar Amá’s Super Nachos Recipe
- 1 pound plum tomatoes
- 1 white onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup finely minced fresh cilantro
- 1 Tbsp seeded and finely minced serrano chile
- 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more, to taste
Guacamole for nachos
- 2 firm but ripe Hass avocados
- 1 serrano chile
- 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice
- 2 Tbsp minced fresh cilantro
- 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more, to taste
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 1/2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk, warmed
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 1 cup grated Monterey jack cheese
- 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 8 cups tortilla chips
- 2 Tbsp crema or sour cream
- 2 Tbsp crumbled cotija cheese
- 2 tsp minced white onion
- 2 tsp minced fresh cilantro
- 3 radishes, trimmed and julienned
- 2 Tbsp pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds)
- 2 Tbsp pomegranate seeds (optional)
- To make the salmorejo salsa, slice the tomatoes in half through the stem end. Working with one tomato half at a time, use the large holes of a box grater to grate the tomato into a bowl, stopping once you reach the skin. Discard the skin. Grate the onion into the same bowl in the same manner, stopping once you reach the root end, and also grate garlic cloves. Add the lime juice, cilantro, chile and salt and stir to combine. Taste and add more salt if needed. Set aside.
- For guacamole, crush the avocados with a fork and combine with the chile, lime juice, cilantro, and 1 tsp salt in a bowl. Taste and add more salt if desired.
- To make the queso, in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour is thoroughly incorporated (1-2 minutes). Whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming, slowly add the milk. Once all the milk has been added, continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil. While the milk is heating, in a large bowl, combine the cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses and the cornstarch and toss to combine. Once the milk reaches a boil, immediately reduce the heat to low and slowly add the cheese mixture, one handful at a time and stirring after each addition, waiting until the cheese is completely melted before adding more cheese. Once all the cheese has been added, stir in the salt. Taste and season with more salt if necessary. Pour the queso through a fine-mesh sieve set over a clean bowl.
- Arrange half of the tortilla chips on a large platter and drizzle evenly with half of the queso. Arrange the remaining chips on top and drizzle with the remaining queso. Spoon 1/4 cup of the salmorejo salsa evenly on top, followed by 1/4 cup of the guacamole and the crema. Sprinkle evenly with the cotija cheese, onion, and cilantro. Finish by sprinkling with radish, pepitas, and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.