You go to a ballpark or amusement park or carnival and ask for some nachos, and you get a plastic tub with three compartments: a large one holding a fistful of tortilla chips, and smaller ones holding, respectively, molten cheese-food and a tablespoon of canned dog food that you are obliged to pretend is chili. You dip the chips in the toppings: a dunk in the chili, then a delicate maneuver in which you try to get some cheese onto the chili without the weight and surface tension of the pool of cheese pulling the chili off the chip altogether and creating a brown chili-cheese stew that somehow manages to diminish the appeal of both components. (Unless, of course, you're one of these people who uses a plastic utensil to mount dip on a chip, which, I will have you know, is illegal in 48 states.) And apart from the uncomfortable sense that a grownup has no more business eating these things than leaping into the bouncy castle at a 6-year-old's birthday party, they're delicious.
Similarly, you go to your friendly neighborhood Tex-Mex chain and order nachos, and you get one of two things: either an ineffably sad plate of tortilla chips covered in slightly rubbery melted cheese and sliced jalapeños, or a tray containing the mulched remains of a trio of crunchy tacos that have been attacked by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. In either case, it's abundantly clear that you're not being served some ambitious culinary venture. Nachos, for better or worse, are just chow, for tasting good and eating a lot. And in either case, they're delicious.
This is the wonderful thing about nachos (well, OK, the second wonderful thing, after eating them): When you're working with tortilla chips and melty cheese, things can only ever get so bad. The worst plausible plate of nachos—bland cheese, stale chips, sharing them with Jim Gray—is still compulsively eatable to an absurd degree. And, sure, the converse is true—even the very best plate of nachos isn't exactly the finest thing you'll ever eat (unless, of course, you are a British person)—but unless you're piling radioactive waste on your Tostitos, you'll likely never have a truly bad nacho in your life.
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What does this mean for your own nacho-making efforts? (I guess this is where I should tell you that you're making nachos.) It means you essentially cannot fail. Your nachos, even if they are nothing more than a fun-sized bag of Cool Ranch Doritos into which you accidentally spill a jar of Old El Paso queso dip, are gonna taste good. Bonanza! Now go to the store and get some nice ingredients, ya bum.
Here's the thing. Yes, you can choose to drape a rubbery sheet of American cheese-food on top of some Fritos, stick ‘em in the microwave for 45 seconds, and have a tasty snack, and if that's what you want, go for it. But, you can do that any time. This time, let's pretend we're making an actual meal for grownups instead of something for hyperactive toddlers to eat with their filthy mitts. Why not? You're not going to regret it. The worst realistic scenario still ends with you eating a plate of tortilla chips covered in melty cheese.
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Here's one way to make wonderfully tasty nachos. It's not particularly ambitious. In fact, it's quite conventional. It is a safe venture beyond microwaving a plate of American-cheese-topped Fritos, but stops 10 miles short of asking you to buy a duckling and force-feed it corn for a year so that you can harvest its foie gras, slice it atop some home-roasted tortilla wedges with taleggio cheese and black truffles, and call it Les Naches des Flouveaux or some shit. It's a launching point for your own pleasurable futzing. Try it. Have fun with it. Make your own additions. Put some chopped mango in there. Go nuts. Think to yourself, "This is gonna be a bad idea," and then marvel when it is not.
To begin with, acquire some shredded chicken. This may be accomplished several different ways. My recommendation is that you top some boneless, skinless thighs with onions, garlic, a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste, and spices, cover them with beer, leave them to simmer for a few hours, and then shred them with a fork, but if you wish to buy a rotisserie chicken of indeterminate age from the warmer at your supermarket and pull it apart with your hands, that's your prerogative. Truly, it's going to taste good either way, because you are going to put it between tortilla chips and melted cheese. But, really, if you have the time, do the simmering-in-beer thing. (You have the time. Do the simmering-in-beer thing. It tastes incredible. Don't be a jerk.)
Now, spread some tortilla chips on a baking pan or cookie sheet. The temptation here is to pile as many chips on there as the vessel will hold, but you must resist. There are few things more depressing in life than finding a layer of naked tortilla chips at the bottom of your nachos, after all the glorious toppings have been consumed (one of those few things is the realization that you are going to eat them anyway), and this is what happens when you use more chips than will comfortably form a single, only mildly overlapping layer on a cookie sheet or baking pan. If sticking to that single, only mildly overlapping layer means that you wind up with extra chips, you can always break out a second pan (if you have one), or save your leftover chips for the next time you neglect to stock your home in advance of a hurricane.
Now, working liberally and with no particular concern for perfect evenness, top the chips with, in order: shredded chicken, black beans (from a can), sliced black olives (from a jar), chopped scallions, corn (yes, dammit, corn), sriracha (yes, dammit, sriracha), a shamefully excessive amount of shredded pepper jack cheese (like, fucking piles and piles of it, just all the shredded pepper jack cheese there ever was, great obscene scoops of it that you cradle in your hands and hold up to display them to the heavens that are powerless to stop you and you make an evil moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha sound and let the cheese rain down upon the chips and pretend that you are the Snow God casting judgment upon the unfaithful), and then also some sliced pickled jalapeños. You add these last so that the heat-averse may pluck them off and set them aside without disturbing the eventual Great Blanket of Melted Cheese. Also because they look cute atop the towering, faceless white drifts of pepper jack.
There will be more things to add, but now it is time to pop the nachos into the broiler until the cheese is all melty and bubbly, but not until it is burned. A few minutes, maybe? Stay close by. Don't let the cheese burn. A little bit of browning is OK, but burnt cheese is unforgivable.
What you have created at the exact moment that you remove the steaming tray of nachos from the broiler is a near-perfect foodstuff, and if you wanted to stop there and sit on your kitchen floor mechanically shoving nachos into your gaping maw in a state of visible arousal, no one could blame you, although there is a fair chance that they will give each other the side-eye and shuffle toward the door, never to return, the Puritans. However, now's a good time to add some things that don't belong in a hot broiler, in the following order:
Fresh salsa or pico de gallo. It looks pretty, tastes great, and is wonderful. If you made your own, gold star for you! But if you bought a tub at the supermarket, that's perfectly fine, too.
Guacamole. Well, a simple version, anyway. Avocado, chopped cilantro, lime juice, salt; mash these together in a bowl, and pile great heaping globs of the result across the cheese-field of your nachos.
Sour cream. A few healthy dollops here and there.
More gorgeous ruby-red droplets of sriracha. "Ooh, that's not reeeeal hot sauce! Mew mew mew!" Shut up and put in on there, OK?
More finely chopped cilantro. It smells good and it tastes good, and it will help you weed out the genetic weirdos for whom these things are not true so that you can coldly and cruelly excise them from the circle of your acquaintanceship. Also it looks good. All agree on this point.
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And … there. Your nachos are complete. Use a spatula to separate portions onto plates and serve them with cold beer. If you happen to lose your capacity for conscious thought among the gooey, greasy, glorious strands of stretchy melty cheese shortly thereafter, that's perfectly understandable—but if you don't, spare a moment to congratulate yourself for having taken the impossibility of failure as an invitation to do more, and not as permission to do less. You hero, you. You've earned this feast.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Jim Cooke.