Walking with Nachos

What do you do when you want nachos, BUT you’ve got to be on the run? Risk your shirt? Yes. A shirt is a worthy loss in the great nacho hunt. Unfortunately, we all have moments where soiled garments won’t work. Sure, nachos will settle you before that big job interview. No, the remnants of the stacked chips on your crisp white shirt won’t help. What can you do? You must satisfy an urge, but you must also retain some decorum. Baja Fresh believes it has the answer.

When I was treated to lunch yesterday at Baja Fresh. Initially my interest was low, I was content ordering a bean burrito. I was surprised, to say the least, when a small poster advertising a new item caught my eye. The “nacho burrito.” My choice was made. I could walk and eat nachos. I could investigate an amalgamation of two dishes. I could quell hunger and have a topic of conversation for this blog. Baja Fresh’s description of the burrito is as follows: “Nacho Burrito – It’s Spicy! Chicken, Jack & Cheddar cheese, black or pinto beans, rice, Smokey Queso Fundido, jalepenos, and Salsa Crema.” Those elements were all there, for sure, and I consumed the item quickly while thinking of a few questions.

Did it solve the quandary of eating nachos while walking? Well, yes. Was it good? No, not really. Does the inclusion of tortilla strips in a regular burrito make it a “nacho burrito?” Hmm…. no. Why was there so much rice?

I am fortunate enough to have a brilliant and beautiful lady in my life. That lady, sage that she is, vehemently rejects any Tex-Mex that includes rice as anything but a side. She offered the following key points (I’ve edited slightly because her tongue is so sharp).

1. Why do people like Burritos when their cousin Taco is clearly superior?
2. Rice belongs on the side of plate when served with Mexican cuisine, NOT mixed in.  (Rice is cheap so people add Loads of it which then takes away from the actual tasty substance of the ‘rito)
3. Why do people insist on combining two perfectly good meals into one Disappointing meal?
4. Tortilla “strips” – what the bleep is that bleep?  Strips aren’t for Nachos because there’s not enough room to cradle the goods – too heavy a load for a weak chip.
5. When a restaurant screams that they use fresh ingredients by including it in their name, it automatically makes me wary.
6. A true lover of Good Food would never trade in the fulfillment of eating the Real Deal because they are afraid of getting melted cheese on their shirt.  Pussies.
7. No matter how disappointing, we should always be grateful for a Free Meal.

And, she is absolutely right. In the the Baja Fresh nacho burrito, rice almost completely nullified the remaining ingredients. Only the jalepeno pepper really sang, and thanks to actually being very fresh provided a crunch that was completely missing from the tortilla strips.

I’m also baffled as to the inclusion of rice in strict nacho definition. Rice, simply, plays no roll in nachos. Rice, does, suffice to say, play an important roll in filling out the fast food burrito. Cheap, plentiful, and bland. Rice makes many a burrito sit in the pit of ones stomach unable to face the remaining rigors of the day. In terms of this burrito, it is the inclusion of rice that makes it more “burrito” than “nacho.” In fact, the “nacho” elements are their only in name.

Learned, via ingestion of the “nacho burrito,” is that if I really want to eat nachos while walking, I should simply adapt the classic walking taco (chili, crushed Fritos still in bag, cheese… also called a Frito pie) recipe to a true nacho purpose. Nice try baja fresh, you’ve given it your all. Unfortunately, the nacho hunters are pulling your card.

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On Nachos and Hospitality

The other day I was invited to have some homemade tacos with my man Tony and his girlfriend Lauren. Because I am constantly surrounded by New York’s legions of newly-minted “foodies” who generally insist on overpriced meals in uncomfortably loud settings, having two friends cook me some tacos in their apartment sounded like a refreshing change of pace.

Little did I know I would be getting more than just tacos; it turned out that Lauren had caught wind of the great Nacho Quest and decided to offer up her own plate for appraisal. Needless to say, I did not want to dispense “marks out of ten” on the spot—my mother taught me better than that. Really, I was just touched by the gesture. Genuine acts of hospitality are rare amongst today’s twentysomethings, and it struck me that nachos are the ultimate food to offer to a guest to make him feel welcome. Everyone digs in together, and any daintiness quickly fades into the obscurity when you’re holding a chip dripping with beans, cheese, and guac.

Throughout the mythology of ancient Greece, hospitality is held in the highest esteem. Back then, people were always knocking about on the open road, trying to get to the Olympics by foot or deliver messages to kings who lived miles away. When these travelers came upon a hut or farmhouse, they could always expect a warm fire and a hearty meal at very least. These days, the advent of air travel, hotels, and restaurants has transformed the way people think about hospitality—it lacks the urgency of Odysseus’ day, but perhaps because of this fact, small gestures make all the difference.

Lauren’s nachos epitomized the height of modern hospitality, and they made me realize something: Though our quest to find the best nachos in the world inherently requires a assessment of quality, nachos will always be appreciated. It’s never really about final “grade.”

For that important epiphany, I will thank Lauren by not grading her nachos 😉

Seafood Nachos

Continuing with the musings on “what really is a nacho,” the “seafood nacho” from A.W. Shucks in Charleston, SC just plain ignores any strict definition and gets loose with interpretation. The dish, comprised of crab meat, bacon, cheddar jack, scallions, tomatoes, ranch sauce and… wait for it… fried potatoes, gets to the heart of one of my sub-inquiries being a nacho hunter. That is, precisely when did nachos over take potato skins as the premier bar room appetizer.

You see, the A.W. Shucks “seafood nacho” could easily be called a deconstructed potato skin. All the elements of a great potato skin are there. Crisp, skin on potatoes. Cheese and bacon. And, the local flair of the crabmeat to make it Shucks own. Instead, A.W. chooses to call the platter a nacho. Damn good they are, no question. But, they sure ain’t nachos. We’ve got to be strict, keep our eyes on the prize, hunt for something true.

The “seafood nacho” is cousin to the “Irish Nacho,” a plate that uses waffle cut fries and not chips. Again, its a hybrid dish. The potato skin not lost completely, just transformed and given new potency with addition of a cooler buzz word. Yes, nachos are “cool.” And, they are delicious. More on the Irish nacho in the coming weeks.

Like the syrian nacho we discussed a few weeks back, this “seafood nacho” speaks to the range of recipes that hinge on some universal notion of the nacho. Some base with cheese, on a plate. The general idea of “nachoness” allows for multiple angles of culinary attack. A.W. Shucks and Freestone’s understand this potential. As nacho hunters, though, we can’t lose focus. We must get beyond the essentialness, and towards a working definition of what really is a nacho.

Good Idea, Bad Execution

When it comes to satisfying customer needs and desires, Boston’s Fajitas and ‘Ritas approach to nachos sets a standard. Taking cues from the pizza industry, this spot allows you to build your own. For starters, chips and cheese are available for a base price, with each add on an additional cost. These include steak, chicken, refried beans, chili, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, black olives, tomatoes, salsa, jalepenos, and oddly, cucumbers.

Gritz and I hit Fajitas and ‘Ritas a little while ago. We were hoping to recover from a major blow to our collective mental health. The promise of building our own nachos was just what we needed; control, but not the hassle of doing any actual work. We ordered a plate with guacamole, refried beans, chicken, jalepenos, and oddly, cucumbers.

We were expecting greatness. Believed the cucumber would add a creative and crisp bite to the nacho, balance the heat of the jalepenos. We felt that Fajitas and ‘Ritas would help us close in on our hunt. Together, as brothers, we held our breath in anticipation (not actually true, but we were excited).

Eventually it arrived, and disappointment set in. Yes, Gritz and I subscribe to a “bad nachos are better than no nachos philosophy,” but damn it if Fajitas and ‘Ritas turned make your own into something that makes you question your own judgement. The elements were all there. They just didn’t fuse, not enough of any one thing, and the beans were dry. Cucumber, it turns out, was a bad move. Surprise. The chips, frankly, were shit.

From the idea standpoint the Fajitas and ‘Ritas style wins. On the execution scale, a reminder that the place is more about the ‘Ritas than the other offerings.

Syrian Nachos

For 18-months of my life I lived in New Bedford, MA. Located on the south coast of the state, the city is known as the historic capital of American whaling and famously as the starting point of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Today, the scallop fishery dominates the local economy, and provides diners with a bounty of delicious bay scallops.

I arrived in the city expecting good seafood, and was never disappointed. Unexpected were the unique nachos at Freestone’s City Grill (located at 41 Williams Street). Dubbed Syrian Nachos, these are a local favorite and unquestionably Freestone’s finest invention. The New York Times urged visitors not to miss them when the 36 Hours series hit New Bedford, and it is not uncommon to see groups order one plate per punter.

Strictly speaking, the syrian nacho is not a nacho. More of a glorified pita pizza. Syrian flat bread is slathered with a spicy tomato paste, topped with cheese and bunged under the salamander. The result is a roughly 12-inch diameter pie of bubbling perfection. Over the crisp base, the cheese and tomato paste merge beautifully and offer a mild kick. The lone accompaniment, sour cream, nicely tempers the bite and the sharpness of the cheese.

There a quite a few people who’ve claimed that Freestone’s offers the best nacho they’ve ever eaten. A bold statement, to be sure, yet the unusual nature of the product and its sublime simplicity certainly yield a very high mark. Again, the only strike against the dish is that, well, are they really nachos? I guess, when push comes to shove, it’s that kind of question that drives us as NACHO HUNTERS.

Scratching the Surface…

On the surface nacho recipes are a touch absurd. The basics of the dish are so, well, basic. There is an essential nacho-ness (sorry, Gritz loves You, Me and Dupree) that must be achieved through the combination of chips and cheese. And yet, while the nessesary ingredients are clear, the possibilities are endless.

Through our global travels we have encountered a wide array of nachos. Some have been revolting (thanks Harrods), others surprising (thanks Cambodia) and some absolutely remarkable (thanks Corky’s BBQ). In each case we have learned a new lesson, and new potentials of flavor arrangement.

Recently, Gritz asked me to work on a series of recipes for gradspot that would explore the potential and range of nachos. I took inspiration from some of our finer experiences and also chose to play on memories associated with nachos. For the latter reason, one recipe pokes fun at the English, and their ineptitude, while another pays homage to the stadium nacho. Covered in that bright, zesty cheese sauce, the stadium variety is the most ubiquitous of all nachos. Often the point of entry (its almost a gateway drug) the stadium nacho either sparks a new passion or disappoints.

In some cases, the initial meeting of cheese sauce and stale chips unfairly casts a stigma on cheese sauce nachos. On the contrary, a sauce can infuse so much dimesnion and flavor, not to mention allow for maximum chip coverage. A recent trip to Memphis reintroduced me to cheese sauces, a spicy version adding amazing dimension to the pulled pork nachos that are the cities speiciality. In an effort to capture that excitment in an easy at home fashion I incorporated a cheaters method with the cheese sauce I developed for our NCAA tournament special.

Nachos can become as fancy as one desires, and still a plate of perfect bubbling cheese and slight browning to the corners of the chips is hard to beat. Two of these recipes are classic. Beans and chorizo, always a great combo, and my memories from the Great Dane Pub in Madison, WI. These are good without accompaniment, and great with that perfect trio of cool topics — salsa, sour cream and guac.

As a whole, this collection of recipes only scratches the surface of the types and the ideas that NACHOS really embody. They are not very good recipes. Just a starting point in our home experiments.

Nachos with Chorizo

Stadium Style Nachos

BBQ Chicken Nachos
Pub Nachos

Cambodian Nachos, Pt. II

Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), Phnom Penh. This historic establishment overlooking the convergence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers served as an unofficial HQ for journalists who were let into Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. These days, it has been taken over by a lively crowd of ex-pats and tourists, but it remains a well-known institution throughout Phnom Penh. Like most of the bustling restaurants lining Sisowath Quay, the FCC offers an extensive menu covering local Khmer cooking, assorted Thai and Chinese dishes, and a hodge podge of “Western” specialties. However, it distinguishes itself by offering nachos amid the latter category. Needless to say, we ordered them.

At first glance, these had all the trappings of a decent to good plate of nachos: solid corn chips, diced tomatoes, fair cheese covering, and a guacamole whose thin consistency was compensated for by its full flavor. However, like the delicious nachos in Siem Reap, the FCC nachos distinguished themselves through the unique flavoring of the primary topping. At Ivy Bar it was an Asian-spiced concoction of ground chicken, but these meatless nachos advertised “refried beans” that turned out to have a consistency and flavor more akin to lentils. It was a bit like emptying the contents of several Ethiopian sambusas onto a pile of tortilla chips. The result? In a word, rather delicious.

August 12, 2006