Nachos Are Fundamentally Flawed

Beautiful now, soon to be soggy and sad.

Beautiful now, soon to be soggy and sad.

Back in October of 2014 we solicited feedback on who had the best nachos in Philadelphia and it seemed everyone had an opinion. The comment thread lit up. Dozens more weighed in on social media. But even as I tried more recommended nachos around town, a Twitter comment by Mike Ilagan stuck in the back of my mind. “Every time I order nachos, I am completely underwhelmed … all of the time.”

As I ordered praised plates of nachos topped with chorizo, bejewelled with tomatoes, piled high with jalapenos and glossed with steaming cheese, there was always a time when the server would come back to the table and ask if I was done with the plate and I would wave it and those last few sad chips, some naked others soggy, away. There was disappointment on each plate.

And today it finally clicked, nachos are fundamentally flawed. Tortilla chips are great. Salsa outsells ketchup in America because it is wonderful. Restaurants cook up delicious pulled pork, chorizo, chicken tinga and dozens of other tasty proteins that find their way onto nachos. I know they’re delicious, because I enjoy them on tacos and in  burritos. But the sum of the parts is always greater than the nacho pile. Where chips and salsa always require a refill of sauce, chips or let’s be honest, both; the end of a plate of nachos finishes as poorly as season 2 of True Detective.

The irony of course, is when nachos are ordered, we’re usually also munching on a much better snack, chips and salsa. The chips stay fresh and crisp, separated from dampening agents like sour cream, beans and molten cheese. Each scoop has just as much or little salsa as you want. Want cheese? Queso fundido is a tremendous way to get cheesify a tortilla chip. The queso remaining hot much longer in a bowl or on a hot skillet. Hoping that shredded cheese, spread on top of pile of chips like some kind of dairy Reaganomics will somehow result in hot, melted cheese on the 99% at the bottom of the plate is a proposition that fails time after time. And then there’s the nearly ubiquitous black olives that have become a staple of nachos. is it for contrasting color? It’s certainly not for taste. Did you hear about the Great Black Olive Shortage of 2013? Of course not, no one has ever miss a sliced black olive.

I’ve seen these issues tackled to some point. A tray of chips, cheese, salsa, toppings and meat spread across a baking pan and then piled on a plate attempts to address the basic distribution problems with nachos but too often, the meat gets dried out, and the bottom chips have still been sitting around too long by the time you get your cheese singed fingers on them.

As I wrote the above, I wondered, are nachos even a real Mexican dish? Is this disheveled mess the result of coming into contact with Americans and our often times borish culture? And after just a bit of research I found that according to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, nachos were originally thrown together for a group of American women shopping in Mexico in the 1940s. The Huffington Post adding that Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya who is credited with the creation of nachos, wasn’t even a chef but rather a maître d’ who was just trying to give the tourists something to eat when he couldn’t find the restaurant’s cook. The ugly Americans strike again.

So I’ve vowed to not order nachos anymore. I’ll stick with chips and salsa. I’ll order queso for dipping. I’ll go in on some guacamole. I’ll take some of the pork that falls out of my taco and scoop it up with a tortilla chip. I’ll build the perfect combination of all of that goodness atop a single chip. But when someone suggests splitting a plate of nachos, my answer will be, no way.