My dad asked me a very serious question the other day. He was concerned, since I’d lived away from Texas for so long, where I fell on the nacho spectrum. Did I prefer a pile of chips with some toppings slopped on willy-nilly or did I prefer each nacho to be one chip toasted with a tasteful spread of Longhorn cheddar cheese and a sliced jalapeno. I was shocked he even had to ask. For me, and for every Texan, there is only one kind of Texas nacho: the latter. Nachos are simple and elegant. Each nacho is its own entity (and that is key), with just enough toppings to give it flavor and a bit of heft but not enough to make it saggy or soggy. Anything else is an imposter!
Nachos are reputed to have been invented in 1943 by a maitre d’ named Ignacio Anaya who was working at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which is just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. As the story goes, some ladies from Eagle Pass came into the restaurant one evening, ordered some drinks and wanted some snacks. The kitchen was already closed, so Anaya melted some Longhorn cheddar on some tortilla chips and garnished each chip with a jalapeno slice. He presented them to the ladies calling his improvised appetizer “Nacho’s Especiales” as Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio. And the name, without the “especiales,” stuck.
Nachos were made only this way until 1977 when a San Antonio businessman named Frank Liberto started selling melted processed-cheese food to Arlington Stadium. You know, the gross stuff that comes out of a pump. (Not to be confused with queso, which is far, far superior!) He called it “nacho cheese” and it was served with tortilla chips. As the story goes, sportscaster Howard Cosell tried some, loved it and extolled the virtues of these “nachos” on national TV. And a taste sensation took off, but sadly it was misinterpreted. Instead of the exquisite traditional nacho of one chip with a topping, people thought nachos were a mountain of chips with melted processed cheese. It was a very dark day in the history of this beloved Tex-Mex treat.
I’ve heard some people call the wrong nachos “Yankee nachos,” though that’s clearly a misnomer since a misguided Texan was the first one to market the so-called nacho cheese. Instead, I prefer to think of them as lazy nachos, as it’s much easier to just throw a bunch of ingredients on a mountain of chips instead of taking the care and time to dress each individual chip one by one.
I have many issues with lazy nachos, but my biggest problem is that they just aren’t satisfying. You know how it goes with these—the chips on top of the pile have too much cheese, meat, beans, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole and whatever else has been hurled on them while the rest of the chips are sans any topping. Where’s the balance? Where’s the equality? Where’s the grace? And to make matters worse, if you make or order these for a group of people, there’s always a big fight to grab the chips with toppings because you know how awful the naked stragglers will taste. So what should be a friendly and pleasant eating experience becomes an all-out struggle for nacho supremacy. Please tell me, where’s the fun in that?
If you’ve never made nachos the proper way, people will be surprised and find them exotic. That’s OK. But what they’ll really discover is that a true nacho is a joy to eat, a sophisticated snack that can stand on its own. So if you’re making nachos this weekend for the Super Bowl, and have never made them the way they were invented, why not give it a try? It’s not hard to make them right. Heck, I grew up with a mom who made them the correct way almost every day when I was a kid—it was her favorite snack. I have fond memories of her spooning refried beans onto chips, adding a bit of cheese and a slice of jalapeno, baking them, and then whipping up a batch of guacamole to spread on top for added nutritional value.
If you want more than just Longhorn cheddar and refried beans, yes, topping it with a bit of meat or a vegetable is fine. Just don’t go nuts, as with nachos you’ll find that less is more. And sure, it’s quite all right to serve guacamole, sour cream or salsa on the side, but you may discover that it’s not even necessary as each nacho, when properly made, really needs no embellishment. And after each creamy, crunchy and spicy bite—I bet you’ll agree that nachos are just about the most perfect Tex-Mex food.
Proper Texas nachos
- Preheat the oven to 375° F.
- Cut the tortillas into quarters.
- Pour enough oil in an iron skillet to come up 1/2 inch up the sides and heat to 375° F.
- In batches, fry the quartered tortillas for 1 to 2 minutes on each side (until golden brown) and then remove. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle lightly with salt.
- Once chips have been made, spread each with 1 teaspoon of refried beans (if you so desire), 1 tablespoon of cheddar cheese, and 1 pickled jalapeno.
Bake in oven for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. Serve with guacamole, sour cream, and/or salsa.
You can also top these with beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, huitlacoche, shrimp, fish or anything else you can imagine. But use restraint and taste—nachos should be elegant and refined, not an exercise in excess. Also, if you don’t feel like making your own chips (though you should as they taste better) tortilla chips from a bag work, too.