There is an unmistakable narrative arc when it comes to the stories of American classics—humble foodstuffs that overcome ridicule and prejudice to become something greater than the sum of their parts; and through this triumph, reach a level of iconic status among the masses. You see it with burgers and doughnuts. And that same formula certainly applies to nachos and their transcendent glory.
Yes, the endearing Tex-Mex specialty has all the tell-tale signs of something belonging in the American food canon, starting with its tangled origin story. Legend has it that in Mexico, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya improvised tortilla chips with melted cheese for a group of military housewives. While it’s still unclear how the dish crossed into Texas territory, we do know that entrepreneur Frank Liberto started selling the dish as a concession item in 1976 at Arlington Stadium after creating the first iteration of “nacho cheese.” The myth continues—Monday Night Football broadcaster Howard Cosell loved the dish so much that he made it a point to mention it as often as possible during his program, further spreading the gospel.
Through its popularity, nachos evolved and absorbed regional traditions—so much so that a taxonomy was needed to categorize their distinctions. Chip architecture and toppings have been remixed endlessly, ushering in strange versions like Irish nachos that replace chips with waffle fries. Top-tier chefs have been drawn to its blank-slate quality as well, eager to experiment with grapefruit crema and truffle “black olives,” thus giving credence to the once-lowly dish.
The spectrum continues to expand and tests the very definition of what the dish can be—which is all the more reason why you need some trusted nacho hunters to guide you through slummy bars, high-end kitchens, and everything in between in search of the perfect loaded chip. Our panel includes:
- Nick Schonberger, founding editor at First We Feast
- J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats and creator of The Food Lab
- Lou Bustamante, Bay Area-based spirits writer
- Jamie Bissonnette, chef and co-owner at Toro NYC & Boston, Coppa
- Josef Centeno, chef-owner at Bar Ama, Baco Mercat, Orsa & Winston, Pete’s
- Edmund Tijerina, restaurant critic at the San Antonino Express-News
- Chris Schonberger, editor-in-chief at First We Feast
- Bill Esparza, food writer, founder of Street Gourmet LA
- Amy Cavanaugh, restaurant editor/critic at Time Out Chicago
- Danny Mena, chef at Hecho en Dumbo
- Matt Post, owner of Javelina
- Jonathon Sawyer, chef-owner at Noodlecat, Trentina, and The Greenhouse Tavern
Address and phone: 2209 Polk St, San Francisco, CA, 94109, 415-268-0140
Bustamante says: “Nachos are my wingmen and my drinking buddies at bars. To me, they are members of the pantheon of bar foods whose primary purpose is to soak up alcohol and become even more delicious after a drink or two. Unlike fine dining cuisine—where the dishes are a chef’s calibrated effort manifested into clever expressions of their philosophy or culture as plated performances—drinking foods work the fryer station making lots of bad decisions, and they are quite comfortable with that.
That cocky swagger is part of what makes the Totchos (tater tot nachos) at Bullitt bar in San Francisco so brilliant. A fat pile of non-homemade, nor local, tater tots are fried until they develop a craggy exterior that the stadium-style nacho cheese sauce clings to, and are stacked loose enough to allow the sauce to pool downwards, forming cheesy aquifers. Sliced black olives, jalapeño rings, and a scattering of pico de gallo salsa add enough briny, tart, and salty contrast to the grease and another round of whatever you may be drinking.”
Freestones City Grill
Address and phone: 41 William St, New Bedford, MA (508-993-7477)
Schonberger says: “Unquestionably, the Syrian nachos at Freestones City Grill stretch definition of the dish. None of the traditional elements are at play—chips, salsa, etc.—and in substitution the New Bedford, MA institution bases its hallmark appetizer on a baked, seasoned pita bread, which is then topped with cheddar cheese, stuck under a salamander, and served with sour cream and a harissa-like red paste. The look and feel of the thing is akin to an after-school, pita-pizza snack. But when reduced to the three Cs of nachos—cheesy, crispy, and communal—Syrian nachos remind all that there are items outside of the normal taxonomy of a dish that force contemplation and re-evaluation of the need to install strict terminology in the first place.” (Photo courtesy Freestones)
Address and phone: 146 E Houston St, San Antonio, TX (210-222-2362)
Tijerina says: “Usually, I’m a nacho purist, preferring individually assembled, freshly fried tortilla chips topped with melted cheddar and a pickled jalapeño slice. But when I depart from the classic form, I go in a completely different direction: yuca chips topped with fried oysters, diced charred pineapple, and jalapeño-honey mayo. I love how the mayo unites the crunch of the oysters with the crunch of the chip, balancing flavors, textures, and temperatures, and elevating the nacho to a sophisticated appetizer. Traditional? Not a chance. Terrific? Absolutely. It’s a specialty at Ácenar, a modern Tex-Mex restaurant that I always recommend to anybody who wants good Mexican food on the River Walk. On the menu, it’s listed simply as “ostiones/oysters,” but these bites are the next generation of nachos. Pair the oysters with a traditional or prickly-pear margarita, or a refreshing michelada, follow it up with some duck chalupas, and enjoy the view along the river. Even tradition-bound San Antonio holds a few surprises.”
Address and phone: 6757 Poss Rd, San Antonio (TX, 210-520-8717)
Centeno says: “I remember Chacho’s in San Antonio as a kid and the giant platters of nachos. My brother and I would go to the movies and then eat nachos and get people to buy us beer. At Chacho’s you could get chicken or beef fajita nachos, picadillo nachos, chorizo nachos—all kinds. The restaurant offers them in two categories: single-layer nachos, which is sort of like the individual pan pizza of nachos, and pile-high nachos. These are mountains of nachos covered in a blanket of gooey cheese. The genius part is that they also serve them with a side of queso—even more melted cheese. There’s the Monster Kong nachos, which is every kind of nachos all piled together. Not my thing—I’ll stick with the chorizo.” (Photo: Yelp/Denny D.)
Address and phone: 6600 Florence Ave, Bell Gardens, CA (562-776-8800)
Esparza says: “The truth is, as a pocho looking for really amazing Latin-American food, whether traditional, modern, or with American influences, nachos are not really something I get too excited about. But I can’t help but appreciate the dedication and enthusiasm people in the U.S. have for nachos. For me, the lobster nachos at El Coralense are just the right mix of lowbrow and fancy to toss aside my snobby view of nachos. They are, quite simply, f*cking awesome.
El Coralense is a traditional Mexican seafood restaurant from the Pacific Coast with contemporary touches from the younger Curiel siblings, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu. The Curiels take their homemade chips and cover them in a creamy cheese and alfredo-like sauce with lobster sautéed in garlic butter. Then an ample amount of pico de gallo is applied with sliced avocado. Seafood nachos are much more interesting than the usual seven-layer-dip style you see everywhere else, with those ice cream scoops of guacamole and sour cream, or the pumped cheese and pickled jalapeños you get at the movies. El Coralense’s lobster nachos simply say, it’s Friday night, and I’m going to put lobster on these damn nachos, and no one’s going to stop me from this deliciousness.” (Photo: Bill Esparza)
A photo posted by Mackenzie (@mackenziie3) on Aug 6, 2013 at 4:45pm PDT
Address and phone: Nationwide
Lopez-Alt says: “Yes, I am well aware that stadium nachos are not authentic and are covered in goopy faux-cheese that is nothing like real cheese. Blah, blah, blah—I don’t care. Stadium nachos are all about three things: saltiness, savoriness, and texture. The warm chips pulled out of those popcorn warming boxes are as salty as they come (and have you ever noticed that one side is saltier than the other? Lick ’em and see). The cheese sauce is one dimensional, but if you’re going to pick a dimension, salty and savory is a good one to go for. And besides, we all know that the point of cheese sauce is its gooeyness—a gooeyness that lingers long after your nachos have cooled to room temperature. Pickled jalapeños (and they *must* come with pickled jalapeños) add that needed jolt of heat and acidity. It’s the perfect food to go with ice cold, watered-down, overpriced beer. For the record, you don’t have to buy yourself tickets to a sporting event or concert to enjoy stadium-style nachos. Movie theater nachos, or better yet, their close cousins the midnight 7-Eleven nachos, are widely available and hit the spot. The latter even lets you add as much or as little ‘cheese’ as you’d like. That’s a big win in my nacho book.”
Mike Ditka’s Restaurant
A photo posted by Jadah Arrington (@jadahxmarketer) on Jan 2, 2015 at 6:26pm PST
Address and phone: 100 E Chestnut St, Chicago, IL, 312-587-8989
Cavanaugh says: “Former Chicago Bears coach and NFL player Mike Ditka is associated with a few things—his mustache, Bill Swerski’s superfans, and, in Chicago, Mike Ditka’s Restaurant, which serves the best nachos in the city. Coach’s Pot Roast Nachos begin with a few layers of chips, which are smothered with such a massive amount of tender, shredded pot roast, melted cheddar Jack cheese, diced tomatoes, sour cream, scallions, and jalapeño slices that there’s nary a naked chip on the plate. You’re pretty much required to share them, but you can always ask Da Coach for help—you’ll probably see him having dinner at the next table over. The nachos come spread across a large plate in just a few layers—they’re not what you’d find in a baseball helmet with molten cheese, but they’re not Texas-style, single-chip nachos either. They’re the kind of nachos you’d throw together at home during the Super Bowl, by piling ingredients and chips in layers and melting them in the oven—just a whole lot better.”
A photo posted by rara_oh (@rara_oh) on Jul 5, 2015 at 4:37pm PDT
Address and phone: 7910 W 3rd St, Los Angeles (CA, 323-944-0947)
Mena says: “The quintessential Tex-Mex food is the nacho, and though we see it everywhere, few really get it right. At Mercado in L.A., they respect the dish by making it all from scratch. The foundations of great nachos are the chips and the cheese. Here they make the queso in house, and they don’t skimp on it either. Healthy amounts of the unctuous, creamy queso coat almost every chip; as we all know, that ratio is crucial. The other key elements to amazing nachos are the meat and the pickled jalapeños and vegetables. At Mercado, they make them with some pretty amazing carnitas, and the combination with pickled jalapeños to counter the saltiness of the dish is just perfect.”
Address and phone: 1601 McKinney Ave, Dallas (TX, 214-747-1121)
Post says: “Tex-Mex cuisine has always held a special place in both my stomach and my heart. Since growing up in Dallas, I’ve lived all over the world, but it’s always been a challenge to find great Tex-Mex. So every time I fly back home, I always stop at El Fenix so I can order queso, chips and salsa, and importantly, steak-fajita nachos. El Fenix is an institution. It’s been serving Tex-Mex to Dallasites for nearly a century. It’s also the first restaurant I ever ate at as a child. El Fenix doesn’t make fancy nachos, and I doubt they’ve changed at all over these past few decades. Each nacho is individually constructed, topped with fajita steak and a generous portion of cheese. There are pickled jalapeños on the side (a must), and the nachos also come with the Tex-Mex holy trinity of accompaniments—guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo. Nothing else is needed or necessary. One bite of their fajita nachos transports me back to my childhood, and for me, nothing tastes better than that.” (Photo: foodspotting.com)
Sunset Grill & Tap
A photo posted by 돼지 (dwaeji) (@dwaeji_means_pig) on Jul 11, 2015 at 7:36pm PDT
Address and phone: 130 Brighton Ave, Allston MA (617-254-1331)
Bissonnette says: “Nachos NEED to be layered. When a pile is dropped on the bar—bad sign. Sunset Grill & Tap nachos are layered, seasoned, and stay hot and crispy until the last bite—so much so that I am embarrassed to say I mostly eat them solo. The Jack cheese is tangy but not greasy; the jalapeños are pickled and plump; canned black olives add umami; and they’re topped with huge dollops of guacamole and sour cream. This makes them fun to eat around and build bites.”
A photo posted by michelle (@meesh_0733) on Sep 16, 2015 at 4:57pm PDT
Address and phone: 2417 Professor Ave, Cleveland, OH (216-781-8858)
Sawyer says: “Totally non-traditional and awesome are Rocco Whalen’s Cleveland Nacho’s at Fahrenheit—crispy potato, Parmesan fondue, and Romano cheese, topped with scallions and bacon. Totally killer. But to be honest, home-made nachos are my favorite and make for great family time. My tips: It’s all about keeping the cold ingredients—scallion, cilantro, lime zest, pico de gallo, and guacamole—on the side, and using the broiler to get that cheese hot and the chips crisp. Never use an oven or microwave!”
Address and phone: various locations (Memphis, TN)
Schonberger says: “As a person who has literally built (and, let’s be honest, jeopardized) his professional reputation on nachos, I’m actually sort of sheepish about ‘best’ recommendations—I’ve got too much love for the hunt to crown one plate. So I love the nacho bucket list, which is as much about excellence in nacho-making as it is about representing the nacho landscape in its totality.
With that in mind, I want to plug the cheese-and-pork–smothered tortilla rounds at Corky’s in Memphis. The premise alone should be enough to sell you: chips, stadium-style cheese sauce, and fatty mounds of saucy Tennessee barbecue. Memphis-style nachos are delicious, and Corky’s offers a paradigm of the form.
But the reason I think this dish a must for nacho completists is that they represent three important tenets of nacho-making:
- Nachos can be regional. From kalua pork-topped nachos in Hawaii to cheesesteak nachos in Philly, the dish is the ultimate canvas for experimentation and bar-friendly displays of local culinary pride. Besides maybe BBQ spaghetti, Memphis BBQ nachos are the town’s most beloved dish outside the barbecue itself.
- Great nachos build on tradition. Cheese-sauce nachos pay homage to Frank Liberto, the man who helped popularize nachos in the U.S. through his Ricos cheese sauce. They should be celebrated for channeling the spirit of baseball stadiums through a local lens. #America
- BBQ nachos improve BBQ. Yeah, I said it. Memphis barbecue is great, but it’s too one-note after a while. These nachos commandeer the best part about it—rich, fatty pork drenched in tangy sauce—and add chips and cheese. Game, set, match.” (Photo: Yelp)