Nachos at John P. Field’s in Clayton, Mo.

A guest post by Ms. Cary Randolph Fuller

In the words of the poet Murphy Lee, “the Lou is more than the Rams, Cards, and little Arch.” It’s also a city full of great American bars. No frills, just baseball on the flat-screen, girls in jeans, and extensive, exhaustive menus. As a rule, if Mike Shannon can fry it, you can eat it, and you’ll pair it with a big cold pint of Bud Select.

John P. Fields is one such bar. Tucked away in the yuppie enclave of Clayton, it prides itself on an atmosphere “accented by close ties to NHL hockey.” And the atmosphere is ideal…if your name is Dave or Norm and your palate comfortably unsophisticated. These nachos looked terrific: bright colors and a perfect distribution of cheese, chili, and jalapeno peppers. Great nachos to eat on a date: pick up a chip and nothing falls off. They are neat, tidy, aesthetically pleasing. But something was amiss. They lacked any kind of kick. Flavor? Stale chips? A second trip is unlikely so I may never find out. But one thing is certain: when three grown women split an order of nachos and don’t even touch half the plate…something ain’t right.
Because like Nelly I am “representin’ Saint Louis every time I breathe,” these nachos get a 5/10 rating. Without my loyalty, they really merit just a 2 – for presentation and portion size.

Nachos at a Museum

Our first attempts at making nachos involved round chips, a bag of shredded cheese, and the family microwave. At ages 9 and 6, respectively, Christopher and I spent several months perfecting a rudimentary nacho recipe. Cooked for 1 minute, we had creamy melty (to steal from Taco Bell) cheese. Blast for 2 minutes, we had a type of nachos we referred to as “crispy” – the cheese loosing all moisture and hardening.

A Pittsburgh’s contemporary art mecca, the Mattress Factory, nachos are made using the first of the Nacho Hunter’s two microwave cooking method. Round chips are topped with ample cheese and finished with a healthy portion of veggie chili. The microwave, in this case, can be forgiven for two reasons. The first, simple enough, is that the Cafe doesn’t have an oven. The second, a bit more complicated, is that the overwhelming surprise of having nachos available at a museum cancels out complete lack of building technique.

These nachos are adequate. Delightfully basic, the nachos fill a single man’s hunger and prepare him to look at art.

Ultimately, while just a 5 on 10, nachos at the Mattress Factory do succeed in ranking highly among least likely places to eat nachos.

A visit is recommended (for the art, primarily).

Nachos at Hard Rock’s Pink Taco

At Nacho Hunters we are heavy supporters of cheese sauce on nachos. No, not yellow whiz. More artisanal options. Chipotle flavored. Jalepeno spiked. These add a remarkably nuanced flavor to nachos, and help overcome bland toppings. They also, as we’ve often discussed, provide optimal coverage.

When done perfectly, a cheese sauce is accompanied by a sprinkling of hard cheese prior to the nachos tanning up under the salamander. Pink Taco, in Los Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel, knows the science behind this well. I sampled them amidst the stresses of Magic this week, and found momentary joy and relaxation.

Before the reality of their actual success hit.

Chipotle leads the cheese sauce. Unfortunately, the flavor stumbled to the finish line. No punch. No final burst. The cheese was also sadly pooled at the bottom of the nacho dish, forcing a need to dip the chips. God struth! That is not the nacho way!

Nachos are about topping. And, while Pink Taco fails to balance the goods on the chip, it manages to provide some strong material. The grilled chicken is well spiced, and moist. An additional plus comes in dicing it very finely. Helps with coverage, and helps to ensure chips are not overweight.

A broken chip in transit to the mouth ruins a good nacho experience.

Initially, the secondary topping, red bell peppers, raised a (well) red flag. For flavor, they brought a nice sweetness. Not a great nacho texture however. In Tex-Mex, the pepper should be firmly relegated to bad fajitas. One must, however concede that aesthetically they popped and made the dish an on table winner.

When the dust settles, and taste buds are allowed to submit transmissions to the brain (so hard in Vegas), Pink Taco’s nachos rate a 6 on 10.

Black Tie Nachos

Convention may suggest that nachos are messy. That nachos are not acceptable fair at fancy black tie affairs or benefit parties. Yet, if we look closely at the single chip build, popularized by Chili’s restaurant, we can see the potential of utilizing nachos as passed hors d’oeuvres.

The Chili’s method (by no means exclusive to the chain) simple combines all ingredients utilized on each individual chip. The result is very balanced, and almost completely mess free. Celebrity Chef Alton Brown also champions the single chip nacho in his “Ultimate Nachos” recipe.  Typically (or I should say, in my experience), single build nachos have a layer of refried beans topped with cheese, and capped with a single jalapeno. Other strong options are a chipotle grilled chicken or carnitas version. Simple, again, and relatively mess free. The only true issues with single build nachos are a) they minimize the grand communal nature of the dish and b) they are awfully time consuming to prepare.

However, when you are at a catered affair, what do you care about how long it took them to make the hors d’oeuvres? You’re probably more concerned with the fact that mini egg rolls and crap carpaccio are no match for the nachos you really want! The individual chip nacho solves these woes. Eating while standing, as one does at black tie affairs, is not really communal anyway. So, an individual chip is great. Plus, you are not encouraged to stuff your face at these events.

According to my friend Abby, nachos are on some caterers lists. Yet, who knew this was an option? When will I someone be bold enough to take the right path? All the nacho hunters wish for is to be passed a heavily built chip at the next bar mitzvah we attend.

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.