Who doesn’t love nachos? They’re the versatile Tex-Mex wonder-food that hits a lot of sweet spots. Making a great plate of nachos is a mix of great ingredients and layering. Don’t forget that word, folks, “layering.”
Nachos has it all. They bridge the service gap between being the perfect bar food, family dinner, and fast lunch all at the same time. Few foods can achieve such broad culinary heights. The secret here is a blissful matrix of crunchy, gooey, crisp, and soft textures with umami, cheesy, tangy, acidic, sweet, and savory flavors. You can also shove them in your mouth quite easily.
The thing is, as with all foods with so many factors involved, the opportunity to mess things up is high. Choose the wrong chips and welcome to soggy town. Choose the wrong cheese and you’ll be abandoned at the table. Go cheap on the protein and you might as well pack it in. So here are some hard and fast rules for making the perfect plate of nachos.
1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT CHIPS
We’re not making Chilaquiles here. And while I love me a good breakfast with a heaping plate of tortilla chips smothered in red sauce, stewed meat, and melty queso, that ain’t nachos.
Nachos require a sturdy corn chip. Toasted Corn Doritos work well here. The heavy dose of corn and saltiness is the perfect savory base for nachos. Santitas are another great option. Tostitos tend to be a little thin. You want a chip that has heft and a high soaking-up-all-that-salsa point. Corn chips tend to crisp up nicely due to all the oils in the chip adding a crispy roasted dimension that helps a plate of nachos shine.
Plus, a sturdy corn chip is strong enough to hold up to the weight of the toppings. The last thing you want is a thin tortilla chip that shatters every time you dig into your nachos. That’s just the worst.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT CHEESE
Good cheese is crucial to any plate of nachos. You’ll want to focus on a mild and sharp semi-hard cheese here — avoid funky, soft, and hard cheeses.
I like to use a mix of equal parts Monterey Jack and sharp yellow cheddar. The Jack cheese has a good melting point and serves as more of a base for the stringy and melty aspects of the nachos. The sharp cheddar is all about taste. It’s an umami hit that amps up the middle-of-the-road flavor of the Jack. The yellow cheddar also brings a nice balance of orange to the Jack’s white to give your dish that “classic nachos” look.
3. CHOOSE ONE PROTEIN
When it comes to toppings, don’t overdo it. You don’t need carnitas, asada, and black beans all on your nachos. It’s too much for the chips to handle. Choose one great flavor and do that one well. You can, of course, kill it with some dope shredded pork, adobe prawns, or even Taco Tuesday ground beef. You do you.
I like to go with either stewed and spicy black beans or braised and then fried steak. In this case, the steak was the way to go as no vegetarians were dropping by. I seared the steak with toasted spices (allspice, smokey anchos chili powder, and cumin) and then braised it with a cup of beef stock. Once the stock is braised off, I did a rough chop on the meat and then fried it up in pork lard to add a crispness. It becomes a crisp and tender umami bomb. It’s also really hard not to straight up just eat the steak at this point.
4. ALWAYS LAYER
Layering is key. Chips. Cheese. Chips. Steak. Cheese. The bottom layer of chips and cheese add that dimension to a plate of nachos that takes it from good to great. And, honestly, what dish isn’t better with an extra layer of melted cheese in the middle? Yeah, none.
Pop that dish in the oven on a lower heat (around 325F) and let slowly bake for a good 15-20 minutes. You want the cheese to melt while the chips have a chance to start to just brown and crisp up a bit.
5. CHOOSE YOUR TOPPINGS WISELY
I like to live by the rule of three with a lot of food. For instance, never top a pizza, burger, or nachos with more than three extra toppings after the cheese. It will get too muddled and a lot of the distinct flavors will get lost in the mix.
I go with sour cream for a silky smooth and, well… sour and creamy texture and taste. Then I like to choose a sweet and spicy salsa. I go with classic mango habanero. It’s got an interesting texture and sweetness thanks to the mango yet still hits the classic fresh salsa (or even pico de gallo) marks with the red onion, cilantro, chili, tomato, lime, and plenty of good salt. It’s refreshing, tart, sweet, very spicy, and acidic.
Lastly, a dollop of guacamole is a must. Don’t go overboard here. Make a classic guac — a couple Haas avocados, plenty of cilantro, red onion, cumin, lime, tomatoes, and a generous pinch of good salt. The guac adds that lush aspect to the whole dish which counterpoints the crunch, cheese, protein, sour, tart, acid, umami, and sweet. It ties the whole plate together like The Dude’s rug.
Don’t be afraid to dollop these right on top of the nachos with a good sprinkling of fresh cilantro. Nachos are supposed to a messy nosh. Get those hands dirty!