Boy meets chips, cheese, and chilies
Like many Americans, I do not have an Italian grandmother, nor a Nigerian one. My mother does not rinse kimchi in the dark. My dad would be happy to eat his meals in pill form, perhaps because my grandmother fed him clam broth for breakfast, hot.
If I go searching for my culinary inheritance, I wind up in a bowl of creamed chipped beef. Chicago-born, my culinary slate started empty, and I went at things as I have taught myself: ravenously, indulgently, with a taste for chilies. But it wasn't until I ate nachos that I knew what it meant to have a food call your name.
I was around 10 years old when my hockey coach took us after a game to Benny's, a dive bar near the Noroton Heights train station, and one of the adults ordered nachos. Someone passed me a chip—and I'd never ask for chicken fingers again. I hounded my parents to go to Benny's after that. I remember the first plate that was mine alone: the sting from the jalapenos, which struck me like a slap—first shock, then burn. I ate every chip, I wanted more. Hot and cool, slightly briny, creamy with a crunch, no taste out of place. They were as cohesive, flavor-wise, as a Coke.
It's awfully cool to praise crappy food and mock healthy eaters, but my love is not ironic; I don't consider nachos junk. They're simply my favorite dish. I have made many times the decision to "grow up," but I can't outgrow nachos. No food makes me happier. I've ridden culinary trends, purchased kitchen wiz-dos, and eaten extremely fine meals abroad. My weight has gone up and down by 30 pounds; I've been skinny for sports and pudgy from cheeseburgers. But ever since Benny's, if nachos are listed on a menu, they're mine.
When my wife and I met, I didn't know how to cook. I lived off energy bars, and my oven was where I kept my shoes. But I've always kept cheese, chips and jalapenos in the kitchen.
The origin of nachos
My history with nachos began in a dive bar; America's began south of the border. The origin story derives from two articles, one from a 1969 interview with Ignacio Anaya, the credited inventor of nachos, in the San Antonio Express-News; the other from an interview with Anaya's son in the same newspaper in 2002. In 1943, Anaya Sr. worked as maitre d' of the Victory Club, a restaurant in Piedras Negras, Mexico. One evening, a group of women from nearby Eagle Pass, Texas, turned up at the Victory for a bite to eat and some chicos, cocktails made with tequila and blackberry liqueur. The chicos weren't a problem, but no cook could be found, so Anaya tossed some tostadas (tortilla chips are basically broken-up tostadas) and Wisconsin cheddar into an oven, and topped each serving with a slice of pickled jalapeno. The ladies loved their snack and asked what they were called.
"Just call them Nacho's Especial," Anaya said, 'nacho' being a common nickname for Ignacio.
Undoubtedly, many people by that point had melted cheese on chips with a jalapeno topper, but it was Anaya who gave them a name.
My poor, abused nachos
Nachos may have begun in Mexico, but they're American by now. What a horrible reputation they've got; people are incredulous when I order them as an entrée. Nachos are the martinis of snack food: a simple recipe that has been abused to scrape money off drunks. Don't get me started on bars that drench them in sour cream and watery salsas, like burial mounds. Or ballpark nachos, with salt licks disguised as chips and a side of chemicals. Disgusting examples abound—sashimi nachos; salad nachos lacking cheese. I'm sure in Los Angeles you can order a green-apple nacho plate, with Red Bull.
Nachos should not be complicated. Anaya's original nachos treated each chip as an individual serving, every ingredient for each sliver: elegance, with melted cheese. Today you'll find that model employed in better restaurants, generally across Texas and the Southwest, but elegance lost the nachos war long ago to crudeness, or as I call it, The Pile.
Everyone knows The Pile—landfill of a thousand toppings. Everyone has eaten a Pile five minutes after closing time. Each bite is a shovel-full, with a the serving size that can feed Kirkuk. Beans stacked on chips, cheese stacked on beans, various watery things stacked on cheese, broiled.
But they're still nachos. I prefer the Texan treatment, but I'll take a Pile over a salad niçoise.
How to judge nachos: The Frenchman Test
When I lived in Paris, my friend Frédéric, a film director who's eaten well around the globe, challenged me to prove that Mexican food can be more than junk, because he'd never experienced otherwise. From this I derived what I call The Frenchman Test, which I use to rate nachos —Can you convince a Frenchmen the plate in front of him is not just food, but cuisine? For nachos to pass The Frenchman Test, there are several rules:
One: Chips are made, not purchased. It's simpler than you think to make your own chips, and skip restaurants that do not. Restaurants that don't care enough to make their own chips don't care enough about other important things, like bathrooms.
Two: Mild cheddar is best. Monterey jack blended with mild cheddar is nice, and Jack with peppers is appealing. But no Swiss, Provolone, or any non-melting cheeses. I recently ordered nachos at a taco shack in Durham, N.C., and the cook served them with cold shredded cheese. "What are these?" I said.
"You ordered nachos," he said.
"I know," I said, "but what are these?"
Three: Chili con Queso is delicious—as a separate appetizer. (Better dipped into than poured over.)
Three and a half: Cheez Whiz is not cheese.
Three and a half, redux: Cheese Whiz degrades life.
Four: Once you depart from chips, cheese and jalapenos, be wary. Sure, steak and chicken can transform nachos into a more socially-accepted meal. Guacamole is delicious, same for pico de gallo and other salsas, but liquid-based sides are dangerous—same for any non-refried beans—since they introduce water. Would you serve fried chicken in soup? In a Pile, they will make your appetizer look like a Death Star trash compactor.
Five: No lettuce. Salads are good; nachos are good; combining them ruins both.
Six: Sour cream, being liquid, should be served on the side. On top, the nachos' heat transforms it into primer.
Finally, I want to add, there is no right way to eat a nacho (chiefly the last nacho). But if nachos are ordered for a group, it is each person's responsibility to retrieve their fair share. Those of us who simply love nachos more than other people shouldn't be penalized for having big hearts.
My poor, abused nachos redux
Of course, a Frenchman still won't be convinced. Probably because the only nachos he's eaten were in Paris. Outside the U.S. and Mexico, nachos cause confusion, and gout. I've eaten nachos in South Africa that were made from phyllo dough. Nachos in London tasted like breakfast sausage and blew up my stomach. In Paris, at a fancy "authentic Mexican" restaurant, my nachos were made from crepes, and smothered in crème fraiche, rosemary and white beans. At an obviously inauthentic—and much cheaper—Mexican restaurant in Paris, they used the same recipe, without the rosemary.
I don't know who those nachos were intended to please, or what culinary model they were based upon. Travel ideally should disrupt the mind, not the stomach. So it's become a rule between me and my wife that after a long flight home we seek out a beer and a snack to ground ourselves. I'll let you guess what I tend to order. (Did I mention that, during our courtship, my wife once picked me up at the airport with a hot plate of nachos in the car?)
They say you can never go home again. But I find nachos everywhere I go. Often I am disappointed, but never discouraged. As Woody Allen said of sex, even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.