Super Bo... game day just around the corner and winter in full swing, NOW is the time to pile into a warm, cozy bar or taco shack with your friends, gather around the table, down a few soul-nurturing brews, and dig into a plate of nachos, that most communal of communal dishes. I mean, seriously: can you name a single dish more fun-to-share than a plate of nachos?
Not only are they delicious (when made right, and we'll get to that), but they practically create their own conversation. Everybody has an opinion on how chunky the guacamole should be. We all have feelings about whether chili or beans make a better topping. Who hasn't considered whether or not they'd ever prefer a fresh jalapeño to a pickled one, and who hasn't considered de-friending a friend who dares to express a preference for fresh over pickled? And then there's the ever-raging debate of cheese sauce vs. melted cheese, a subject you might actually consider not broaching in mixed company (I know from experience that it can end in all kinds of messiness).
Anybody who sells a plate of nachos in New York must have asked themselves these same questions, and I'm in the business of getting answers. For the past few weeks, I've been on a hunt to find out who has the hottest, meltiest, cheesiest, most shareable plate of 'chos in the city.
I tasted and judged all nachos according to the following criteria. The weighting for each category was sliding: how the nachs worked together as a whole was more important than the sum of the individual components. Still, there were some standards to live up to.
- Quality of Chips. The chips in a pile of nachos go through more abuse than a blitzed quarterback. It doesn't matter to me if the chips are thick and crunchy or thin and crisp, but for top marks, they must taste fresh and stand up to the assault of gooey and moist toppings to the last chip. Extra points if they're fried in-house.
- Quality of Toppings. Topping choices can vary, but each should be best in class. Is your guacamole fresh, bright, and well seasoned? Does your chili have a nice balance of heat and meatiness? Are your beans creamy and intact?
- Balance of Toppings. There also needs to be a good balance between toppings overall, combining fresh crisp vegetables, hot chilies, bright pickled jalapeños or salsa, creamy and cooling sour cream, and rich guacamole or chili. Without brightness and textural contrast, nachos quickly become heavy and stodgy.
- Cheese: Sauce or Fresh? This matter has proved to provide some intense debate at the bar. Shredded cheese has the advantage of gooey stretchiness but can turn greasy and congeal-y if you let the nachos sit too long (some folks look at this as a feature, not a bug). Cheese sauce, on the other hand, stays creamy and dip-able to the last chip, but doesn't have any of the stretchiness that regular cheese has. And be careful: some of the nachos we tried had béchamel-style cheese sauces that tasted like they'd be more at home on a plate of fettucini alfredo. Cheese sauce has got to be glossy, smooth, and tangy (sort of like this).
- Layering. Don't you hate when the chips at the bottom of the pile come up completely empty? Nachos should be assembled with the cheese and select other ingredients layered throughout.
- Temperature. The chips need to come out hot, and more importantly, need to stay hot as you eat. This means preheated platters or plates and rapid delivery to the table. It's amazing the number of nachos I tried that were nothing more than lukewarm chips with pumped-out cheese sauce.
- Volume. Nachos shouldn't be dainty. I want a big, messy pile that lasts and lasts.
The Best Restaurant Nachos
These are nachos served in a restaurant setting. Great for sharing with friends over happy hour, but not places where you can catch the game.
Winner: Carnitas Nachos From Taqueria Diana
Price: Carnitas Nachos, $9 (also available with chicken or spit roasted pork for $9, steak for $10, or meat-free for $7).
Setting: Hole-in-the-wall restaurant, no TVs.
More Info: Taquería Diana
This relative newcomer opened by homesick Californian Matthew La Rue serves their nachos in a giant metal tray, which allows not only for more overall mass, but better topping distribution to boot: every one of the freshly-fried chips gets some form of topping or another. And with some nachos, there is a winner in the toppings category. Not so here. Their tender-crisp carnitas, refried beans, fresh guacamole, and melty Jack cheese are all worthy of fighting over.
The whole mess comes topped with a big drizzle of Mexican crema, pickled jalepños and carrots, and a hot salsa verde. Bonus: want a little more flavor on your chips? Those bottomless squeeze bottles of salsa roja, salsa verde, and a hot habanero salsa are only an arm's reach away.
The Best Restaurant Nachos Runners Up
Runner Up #1: Coppelia
Setting: 24-hour diner, with a full bar.
More Info: Coppelia
The all-day Cuban diner on 14th street takes a non-traditional approach to nacho layering: At the bottom of the plate you'll find a deep pool of fresh and gooey muenster cheese sauce along with some of their excellent Cuban black beans. Piled on top of that are thick-cut chips layered with semi-melted muenster and gouda cheese, pickled jalapeños, crema, and guacamole, along with crisp-edged frizzled chunks of roasted short rib.
It'll take you a few bites to expose the pool of cheese sauce underneath, but once you do, the dipping begins and won't end until the whole platter is cleared.
Runner Up #2: Calexico
Price: $10, add $3 for chicken or steak
Setting: Hipster taquería, no TVs.
More Info: Calexico
Calexico answers the eternal question of cheese vs. cheese sauce in the best way possible: they use both. Tangy cheese sauce and crema are ladled over chips already covered with melty, stretchy cheese along with some fresh sweet corn, black beans, cilantro, pico de gallo, pickled jalapeños, and a scoop of guacamole. It's the true cheese-lover's nacho.
Runner Up #3: El Toro Blanco
Price: $7 plain, add $1 for chicken, steak, or chorizo
Setting: Fancy-pants Mexican restaurant in the West Village that is toned down at happy hour, no TVs.
More Info: El Toro Blanco
The nachos are only available from 3 to 7 p.m. on weeknights, but man, are they worth it. If these were on-the-menu-all-the-time nachos, they may well have come in on the very top. Thick, crunchy chips layered with pinto beans, a cheddar cheese sauce, melted Oaxaca cheese, and crumbled queso fresco, along with crema, pico de gallo, and pickled jalapeños. Take it over the top for $1 more by adding a meat of your choice (you want the chorizo). Nachos and a glass of wine or a beer on a weeknight for just about $10 pre-tip? That's not a bad deal.
The Best Bar Nachos
These are nachos to be consumed while drinking beer, watching the game, and generally having a raucous time.
Winner: The Commodore
Setting: Hipster dive, with TVs.
More Info: The Commodore
The Cadillac Nachos at the Williamsburg hipster dive The Commodore live up to the name. Their sheer massiveness is the first thing you'll notice as the Super Aggro Crag-sized tower makes its way across the room. With the combined power of three salsas (red, green, and a spicy creamy version), crema, and the tastiest cheese sauce I tried, this pile of finger-licking fat and carbs is capable of Captain Planet-level degrees of awesomeness, giving you rich, hot, and tangy flavors in each bite.
Don't let the crisp radishes and shower of cilantro and scallions on top fool you: these nachos are all business.
Best Bar Nachos Runner Up: Phebe's Tavern & Grill
Price: $11, add $3 for chicken or ground beef
Setting: Classic tavern. Loud, dimly lit, plenty of TVs.
More Info: Phebe's Tavern & Grill
The archetypical bar nacho. There's nothing fancy or over-the-top here, just a good solid base of chips, melted yellow and white cheddar cheese, and the Three Scoops of the nacho world: salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. A handful of pickled jalapeños finishes off the plate. Because of the compartmentalized nature of the toppings, this is a plate of nachos that invites competition: you better get in there and start scoopin' guac before your buddy does.
Best Fancy-Pants Nachos
These are nachos that are cheffed up beyond your standard bar or taqueria fare. This doesn't necessarily make them better, but they're a good change from the norm.
Winner: Draught 55
Setting: Irish Pub. Not as loud as your typical dive, good live music, TVs.
More Info: Draught 55
Draught 55 has the kind of Irish pub menu that makes you think, "this dish sounds delicious. I think this dish and my stomach would get along nicely if they were to meet," over and over again. The nachos are not an exception. They come served on a hot sizzle platter with the edges of the chips tinged toasty brown—a good sign they've been in the oven long enough to melt every layer of cheese within.
The star topping is a ground beef chili made with Rogue Brewery's Chipotle Ale, and it's balanced with pickled banana peppers in place of jalapeños, a charred corn salsa, sliced avocado, and crema.
Best Fancy-Pants Nachos Runner Up: River Styx
Setting: Dark and upscale Brooklyn-style restaurant
More Info: River Styx
You don't expect to see nachos on the menu at River Styx, a very Brooklyn restaurant with a farm-to-table vibe and a fully bearded kitchen staff, nor do you expect those nachos to come doused in a cheese sauce made with heavy cream and American cheese, but there they are, and they're damn good too. Perhaps this is what irony has become these days.
The nachos may ask more questions than they answer: what's up with the handful of radishes? Do chives have any business being on a plate of nachos? How do they get that shredded pork so moist and tender? Am I really supposed to eat this massive forest of cilantro stems? But luckily, they taste so good that they'll make you realize some questions are simply better left unasked.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.