To know the nacho origin story, you must first know that Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio. Now, rewind to World War II. Ignacio Anaya, a manager at Victory Club, a restaurant in Piedras Negras, Mexico, was in a pickle. His dining room was full of American military wives—they were visiting from a nearby base in Texas—and his chef was MIA. What to do, what to do? Throw together something, anything, and fast. Fried tortillas, cheese, and jalapeños? Perfect. A Mexican canapé for an American crowd.
Nachos were a hit from then on. But they turned into a grand slam thanks to another man, Frank Liberto, who converted Anaya’s creation into mass-produced baseball-stadium fare. His fast food version, with cheesy, shelf-stable, banana-yellow sauce, first appeared at Arlington Stadium, where the Texas Rangers played. Now, it’s in pretty much every stadium across the country.
This chip-and-dip model is a far cry from Nacho’s original nachos—and even further from nachos made at home, where the toppings’ limit does not exist, and you can dollop on as much guacamole as you please. Here’s how to think on your feet, in true Nacho style.
We don’t need to tell you that tortilla chips come in every shape and size and flavor under the sun. There are triangles and circles, scoops and even footballs. They can be shattery and thin or sturdy and thick. Yellow or blue, multigrain or flaxseed-studded, lime-hinted or Dorito-fied. And no one is going to stop you from making nachos with Doritos. Just keep in mind: the sturdier, the better (or else you’ll just have nacho crumbs). And scoops—or any three-dimensional shape—are wildly risky (same reason).
Key words: melting point. That’s the temperature at which cheese liquifies (the milk fat goes first, then the protein matrix throws in the towel). This varies by cheese. Figure in the 130° F range for mozzarella (soft), 150° F for cheddar (semisoft), and 180° F for parmesan (hard). Some cheeses, like ricotta and fresh goat cheese, don’t melt at all—they just get “drier and stiffer,” according to food science guru Harold McGee. Nachos want a cheese that cheerfully melts at a low temperature—that way you don’t have to bake the chips into oblivion. Shred or slice into thin slabs to encourage even distribution. Some favorite picks: jack; Gruyère; cheddar mixed with American (the former can be stringy, so the latter acts as a buffer); provolone; mozzarella; young gouda.
Neither original nor stadium-style nachos feature a main. But that won’t stop us. Party-ready sheet-pan nachos need that something-something to stand out, to holler at everyone, Hey! Get over here! Here’s our strategy: sheet pan, layer of tortilla chips, layer of main, layer of cheese, more chips, more main, more cheese, baked at 375° F, topped with extras, devoured. Got it? Your main is a perfect way to use up leftovers—just don’t tell your guests I told you that. **Think: shredded chicken; pulled pork; crumbled hamburger; sliced sausage; cooked beans, even refried ones; chili.
A fork in the road: preset toppings or choose your own adventure? Both lead to happy game-day parties where people are drinking beer and laughing and everyone’s team is winning and I’m eating all the tortilla chips and who knew football could be so
tasty fun? But you have to pick. Preset: Garnish the sheet tray of nachos before unveiling it to the masses. Choose your own: Create a toppings bar with a bunch of options for people to pick and choose from (stick to five or fewer). Some tried-and-trues: raw or pickled jalapeños; radishes; salsa; avocado slices or guacamole; black olives; raw yellow onion or pickled red onion; fresh cilantro; sour cream.
Tortilla chips. Yellow all the way. Triangles. As thick as they make ’em.
Cheddar (and American?). Grated, but not pre-grated. That stuff is tossed with cellulose powder, which prevents stickage and hinders melting (in other words, nacho sabotage). If you want everything extra ooey-gooey, do half cheddar, half American (if you can only find singles, chop). As for yellow or white—very personal decision—your call!
Chili. Be mindful of where your nachos are served. We opted for a meaty, tomatoey, beany number. But if you’re in Texas, classic chili con carne—which also goes by the name Texas Red, a beef chili with no tomatoes and no beans—is the way to go. If you’re anywhere else, here are other good ones:
Sour cream, chopped yellow onion, fresh cilantro. Or Greek yogurt, but only if it’s full-fat. Maybe a few shakes of hot sauce, too, to wake everyone up.
Tortilla chips. We went with blue corn, but kale will complement a slew of nutty options. Try multigrain or seed-studded varieties, say with flax or chia.
Queso. Our chosen queso was a little spicy from jalapeños and a lot silky thanks to cornstarch—an Austin-diner-worthy recipe from The Homesick Texan’s Lisa Fain. You can make this in advance and keep it warm in a slow cooker. Some other melty beauties:
Crispy kale. Bake the kale pre-nachos until crispy—but not chip-crispy. Remember, it will be layered, then rebaked. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Toss the kale with a small amount of olive oil, plus kosher salt and any spice you please—black or cayenne pepper, even chili powder. Roast until just crunchy.
Pickled jalapeños, shaved radishes, guacamole. The more varied the toppings are, the better they work together. These fellows are: vinegary and spicy; raw and crunchy; fatty and creamy. You could also swap out the peppers for a chunky, spunky salsa.
Which recipe would you invite over? Tell us why in the comments below!