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 juicy burgers and kid-friendly booths, but once Nick and I tasted the nachos, it was the only place we 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 thin premade 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.
Childhood ski trips out west introduced us to a new echelon of nachos. At higher altitudes, ski bums hunted down nachos and “balls-deep” powder with equal enthusiasm. At the Powerhouse Bar and Grill in Crested Butte, Colorado, we found 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 succulent chicken was cooked on mesquite grills. While in Crested Butte, my dad also gave me my first Playboy. The magazine stayed under my mattress for the next eight 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 degree of crispiness to sustain hefty toppings. (Returning to Big Sky some years later, we discovered that the restaurant in question had tragically burned down.) 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 chip went uncovered.
Some people say that all plates of nachos are created equal. They say that any bunch of tortillas smothered in cheese, beans and jalapeños is bar food at its most regressive. In articulating such bold opinions, they reveal something fundamental about themselves. They are declaring, “I am content with mediocrity. I do not demand perfection in one of the few aspects of life where perfection may actually be attainable—nacho making.”
What’s more, they prove themselves to be un-American, because all things considered, nachos are easily as American as apple pie or Miller High Life. And like any good American product, they may not actually be American at all: As it turns out, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that they were created in Mexico.
Nachos: A brief history
A quick hang-ten on the Internet reveals a range of historically suspect theories regarding the origins of nachos. The most pervasive account tells the tale of Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, who worked as a maître d’ at a restaurant called the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico. One day in 1943, a group of ten military wives crossed the border from Fort Duncan Army base. Unable to track down the chef and faced with ten hungry women, Anaya decided to improvise—he covered a plate of tostadas with grated cheese, passed it through a salamander (a broiling unit that heats food from above) and topped the whole thing off with jalapeños. One of the women dubbed the dish “Nacho’s especiale” (“Nacho’s special”), which was later shortened to just “nachos” when Anaya took the dish to El Moderno restaurant and finally opened his own place—Nacho’s Restaurant. The dish gradually spread throughout southern Texas, but it was an American entrepreneur named Frank Liberto who thrust nachos into the national spotlight. After inventing that goopy cheese that always remains in liquid form (NASA probably would have come up with it first if it wasn’t so busy inventing inertia-reel seat belts), Liberto started selling nachos as a concession item in 1976 at the Arlington Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The new stadium snack attracted the attention of Monday Night Football later that year. Before the game started, Howard Cosell sampled the cheese-covered chips in the reception area. According to legend, he was so impressed that he and the rest of the Monday Night Football team began to mention nachos in their broadcasts as much as possible. Liberto gained the moniker “Father of Nachos,” though it seems clear that he really only fathered what has come to be known as nacho cheese—a far more dubious distinction.
Whether fact or fiction, this timeline offers a number of interesting insights into nacho lore. It places the birth of the nacho concept firmly in Mexico, yet the simplification and commodification of the product occurs in Texas. This sequence of events establishes the “Tex-Mex” pedigree of the dish, but what remains unclear is how nachos crossed the border in the first place—maybe those army wives were savvy enough to smuggle the culinary innovation back to base, or perhaps Liberto liked to wander south from time to time in search of the next big thing? Heightening the intrigue are the findings of Oxford English Dictionary researcher Adriana Orr, who describes her epic quest to trace the etymology of the word nacho in an essay titled “Nachos, Anyone?” Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary had dated it back to 1969, working with the curious note “fr. Sp. ‘nacho’: ‘flat-nosed.’ ” Meanwhile, handbooks on Mexican and Chicano language offered “nacho, adv= naturally, of course.” (Incidentally, this is how I would respond if someone asked me if I wanted some nachos, but it still didn’t point toward the delicious appetizer in question.) Finally, Orr found a passage in the 1949 book A Taste of Texas that read as follows: “ ‘Pedro left. Sometime later he returned carrying a large dish of Nacho’s Especiales. ‘These Nachos,’ said Pedro, ‘will help El Capitan—he will soon forget his troubles, for nachos make one romantic.’ ” Could these amorous “Nacho’s Especiales” be the very same as Anaya’s? It would seem that six years on, his Victory Club improvisation had somehow made its mark in the Lone Star State.
My sense is that these interwoven threads—as well as many other stories found on various homespun pages across the World Wide Web—leave a lot of room for revisionist history. Just as Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet, any charlatan with access to chips and cheese could claim dominion over the creation of the first plate of nachos. (One must credit the integrity of Carmen Rocha, the waitress who is credited with the dish to California in the 1960s via L.A.’s El Cholo, yet never gave in to the temptation of rebranding them Carmens.) Perhaps it’s only fitting that a communal snack has enough mythology to go around.
Ultimately, the nacho’s origins are less interesting to me than how the humble recipe has developed in complexity and spawned regional variations, from the superb pulled-pork nachos of Memphis (go to Corky’s) to the less distinguished cheese-steak nachos I once ate at Philadelphia International Airport. I’m also intrigued by the ways in which the dish has ingrained itself into the nation’s culinary conscience, wooing everyone from stoners to Hawaiians, who like to stack their chips with kalua pig (slow-cooked in an sandpit oven). These far-flung variations beckon, and make me wonder whether, somewhere out there, a nacho Holy Grail is waiting to be discovered.
For Nick and me, it’s clear that there’s only one way to find out. And in this case, the mountain certainly hasn’t come to Muhammad.
An innocent appetizer abroad
A nacho hunter’s work is never done. From the Midwest to Montana and San Antonio to South Boston, we’ve searched Tex-Mex joints, roadside shacks and even hardscrabble Irish pubs in our quest. We’ve sampled everything from the concession-stand standard—orange cheese and all—to the individually topped chips at Chili’s that not only take all the art out of nacho construction, but also crush the conviviality that they promote by turning the plate into a math problem rather than a free-for-all. Still eluding us is that Matterhorn of the nacho kingdom, the one that that will make us stop midbite and exclaim, “Yes! These nachos could literally not be more delicious!” Homemade tortilla chips, fresh jalapeños (much better than pickled), cilantro-laced pico de gallo, mortar-and-pestle guacamole and methodical layering have all surfaced in various combinations, but we have yet to find all the components align in perfect harmony.
We’ve even taken the hunt overseas during visits to our grandparents’ house in London, where nachos are about as hard to find as a sober soccer fan. On one outing, our visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum quickly devolved into a pub crawl, which after a few pints devolved further into a nacho hunt. We began at the Harrods Green Man Pub, tucked away below one of the most impressive food halls in the history of department stores. Neath such a cornucopia of fresh produce and high-quality ingredients imported from far-flung corners of the globe, could not a decent plate of nachos be found? Alas, it could not.
These nachos were without a doubt the worst I’ve ever had. The chips were oversalted and stale. Not only was the cheese an unpleasantly misguided English cheddar, but it inadequately covered the tortillas. And what can I say about the beans? The meat? The guacamole? Nothing, because there were none! Only sides of cloying tomato jam and chive dip, which the staff apparently thought they could pass off as sour cream. Not on my watch, I thought to myself as I rolled up to the bar. I flagged down the nattily attired bartender and said, “I’d like to pay for the nachos,” and then I leaned in very close to him—maybe a little too close—and beckoned with a forefinger to add, “but I’d just like to tell you, these are not good nachos.”
He looked at me incredulously and asked, “What’s wrong with ’em?”
“The cheese is terrible, the salsa is very sweet, and they are poorly constructed,” I replied in a measured tone. “I’m not trying to cause any problems, but I just thought someone should know, because the fact is, it’s not hard to make decent nachos.” Eventually the pub manager came over and agreed to strike the nachos from the bill. I was wearing a camouflage T-shirt at the time, which may or may not have affected the outcome. It’s hard to tell. What I do know is that deep down, I did not accept his apology.
While that day’s hunt did not fail to disappoint, I came away from it more determined than ever. I had stood up for what I believe in: the universal availability of decent nachos. When we got home, my grandmother rang up everyone in the neighborhood to boast of her grandson’s coup d’nacho over the posh department store. As a woman who has successfully returned electrical goods that she purchased 60 years earlier during World War II, she does not take flak from anyone, and I think she was proud to see a bit of her aggressive consumerism rubbing off on me. But that’s not my style by any stretch of the imagination; after all, I once failed to complain about a Big Mac that lacked beef patties. But for once in my life, I knew that I was right.
The sad truth is that aside from nachos, the only topics in life that I’ve acquired connoisseurship of are Guinness World Records and miniature golf, and I actually don’t really know anything about Guinness World Records, except those relating to land mammals. However, I do know that the biggest plate of nachos ever made was constructed over the course of four weeks at a restaurant called Nachos Cantina in Melbourne, Australia, and weighed in at more than 2,700 pounds. That’s about a quarter of the weight of a Southeast Asian forest elephant! While that’s pretty big, and I know life moves a bit slower Down Under, leaving nachos out for four weeks seems like a recipe for a public-health crisis. Needless to say, that wouldn’t have stopped me from jumping into the middle of the pile and shouting, “Look at me, I’m a giant nacho!” I’d probably walk away with minor burns from the smoldering cheese, but if nachos can make one romantic, they can also make one insane.
How insane? Well, I once drove more than six hours to visit my brother in Wilmington, Delaware, and he made me drive an additional two hours for a ten-minute meal at Taqueria Moroleon, a dingy Mexican spot in a Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, strip mall. Though I was fuming during the ride, the fantastic nachos assuaged my anger like a nip of whiskey in a baby’s bottle. On another occasion, we motored half an hour to a Taco Bell drive-through to pick up packets of Fire Border Sauce to mix into our refried beans; excessive, maybe, but we needed that little bit of extra kick. We have even bypassed cheese fondue and raclette to order nachos in the French Alps—an epicurean no-no, sure, but also a nacho-hunting triumph. And independently, we’ve tracked down America’s northernmost nachos (found at Pepe’s North of the Border in Barrow, Alaska), ordered nachos at a brasserie outside the gates of Versailles (thus igniting the ire of a lady friend) and reflected on the fall of the Khmer Rouge over nachos at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where beans were swapped out for a spicy lentil concoction. It was as if the chef had emptied the contents of several Ethiopian sambusas onto a pile of tortilla chips. In other words, a bloody good idea.
A philosophy built on chips
While this behavior might appear odd to some, comrades-in-arms understand that the quest represents an ethos that goes beyond food: a way of thinking not only about appetizers, but about life. The beauty of nachos is that unlike, say, a nice seared foie gras in a black-truffle brandy reduction, good nachos can potentially be found anywhere. You’ve got just as good a shot (probably better) of finding a great plate of nachos in some hole in the wall in Idaho as you do in NYC.
It’s this realization that captures the democratic spirit of the nacho, transcending class structures and geographical biases. A $4 plate of nachos at a scrappy taqueria can be just as delicious as $15 venison nachos at an upscale brewpub. Rather than a melting pot (seems dangerous) or a salad bowl (a bit too New Agey), then, my America is the most massive plate of nachos you’ve ever seen. Every ingredient plays its own distinctive and equally important role. While the chips are the building blocks, alone they are still just chips—that’s what Hitler wanted, but no one has ever accused the Germans of making great food. More importantly, eating nachos is by and large an act of sharing. All eaters involved must choose their moves with Jenga-like precision to ensure that they do not leave a pile of dry tortilla chips at the bottom. And so, when I eat nachos with my brother, I want to be able to see the last chip lying on the plate, dripping with a heart-stopping coagulation of cheese, beans and salsa, plus a stabilizing dollop of sour cream, and say to him, “You have it, brother. I want you to.”