There is a plague upon our nation. It has infected restaurants and homes coast to coast. People, everywhere, are eating terrible nachos. The start with a base of vibrantly tri-colored chips that are red, black, and white, which are always under-salted and have more in common with cardboard than corn. The chip base is piled high and then topped with huge handfuls of shredded cheese, as if the chips are a fire the cheese is trying to smother, so the majority of the chips are cheese-less and then a select few are drenched. Sliced black olives, which always taste reminiscent of the can they came from, are strewn about and cemented to the cheese, so they are impossible to extricate. There may be some protein, like a cup of chili or shredded meat dumped on top. Tiny cups of salsa, sour cream and guacamole are served alongside (or worse, dolloped on top where they create soggy sections and are hard to evenly distribute), but are never in appropriate proportion to the nachos.
Why do we live like this?????????? The concept of nachos is so simple. Perfect, even. Crunchy chips, melted cheese, flavorful toppings. Mix and match sides that can add heat, spice, and more flavor. Infinitely customizable and perfect for crowds.
WE CAN DO BETTER. I am not of the opinion that nachos require a recipe, but following some basic principles can ensure you make great nachos no matter what toppings you choose.
It all starts with cheese: Monterey jack, pepperjack, and mild cheddar are all nice, mild, and melty cheeses. I am not into making cheese sauce for nachos because that’s a big step for a dish I prefer to make out of leftovers, but you could do that too.
Add some heft. Black or pinto beans, beef, chicken, carnitas, and chorizo are all excellent protein options (or go for a combination like chicken and beans). Whatever it is should be precooked and chopped small. This is an excellent time to use something leftover from another meal. If necessary you could leave protein off, but this is one of the components that really takes nachos from good to great.
Be bright. Have you watched Salt Fat Acid Heat yet? Samin tells us that all foods need to be balanced by an acidic component and she is right. All of that heavy cheese, protein, and chips can fall flat without it. My favorite additions are pickled jalapenos and pickled onions. Canned green chilis could work in a pinch too.
Contrast is good: Crunchy shredded lettuce or cabbage are great additions after cooking. Chopped cilantro is also welcome.
Plain, not mountain. Mountains make it very difficult to get an even distribution of toppings on all chips. Lay this chips in a single, flat layer so they are just slightly overlapping. Two layers of chips if you really must, but there better be cheese in between.
Wet equity. Everyone deserves to top their nachos with exactly the wet toppings they desire. Serve salsa (various heat levels if you can), guacamole, and sour cream or Greek yogurt on the side with spoons. That way the chips don’t get soggy, and all eaters can apply their perfect topping ratio to their own chips.
The nachos pictured above were made with shredded cheddar and leftover carnitas. When they came out of the oven I topped them with chopped pickled onions, pickled cabbage, and cilantro. Salsa, guacamole, and sour cream were on the side. All of the toppings I used were taco leftovers, just add chips and cheese.