When Kenji unveiled his Ultimate Fully Loaded Vegan Nachos back in February, one of the most remarkable things about it, aside from being incredibly delicious, was that we did not already have a regular, non-vegan fully loaded nachos recipe on the site. (Vegans, if you ever feel like second-class citizens, remember that Serious Eats thought of you first when it came to fully loaded nachos.) Regardless, it seemed like something we should rectify, and with Cinco de Mayo coming up, I volunteered to be the one to do it.
The truth is, though, that there wasn't much for me to do. Over the years, Kenji has written definitive articles and recipes on just about every conceivable nacho component, from cheese sauce to guacamole, pico de gallo to home-fried tortilla chips. Add to that my recently published recipe for refried beans and you have just about everything you'd need to put a big plate of nachos together.
Even so, I went out one day to do a little nacho-eating research in my neighborhood, joined by my old high-school friend, Rona, her husband, Ross, and their insanely adorable baby, Otto. (I may have also packed in a healthy dose of taco-eating non-research, but the story of my incredible appetite will have to wait for another day). My research proved fruitful, because I came away with a few realizations.
The Cheese, Please
My first realization is that fully loaded nachos need both cheese sauce and melted grated cheese. While I love nachos that have just one or the other, any self-respecting ultimate version has to have both because they each bring something different to the dish. The cheese sauce is smooth and silky and easy to drizzle, which means you can practically guarantee getting some of it on each tortilla chip.
The cheese sauce is also a great vehicle for distributing spiciness and acidity. I boosted my version with a healthy dose of Frank's hot sauce and minced pickled jalapeños (I also add plenty of those in slices, but mixing them into the cheese sauce ensures that almost every bite has a pop of that spicy green-chili tang).
The grated cheese, meanwhile, is substantial and deeply satisfying. It's the stuff that, when melted, stretches into indulgently gooey, cheesy strands as you lift the chips.
Including both types of cheese is also my little nod to two critical moments in the history of nachos. First, their invention in the 1940s, when a Mexican maître d' named Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya threw together tortilla chips, jalapeños, and melted Wisconsin cheddar to feed a bunch of Texas army wives; and second, the cheese-sauced baseball-stadium version created by Frank Liberto in the 1970s, a development that helped launch nachos onto the national stage.
Oh, and I also decided to include cotija cheese sprinkled all over the top of the nachos since I couldn't see any reason not to add cheese in as many forms as possible.
The Cream of the Crema
Realization number two is that fully loaded nachos are best with both crema and sour cream. Crema, a type of cultured cream from Mexico, is thinner than sour cream and not quite as tangy. The benefit is that, like the cheese sauce, crema is very easy to drizzle all over the chips instead of falling in blobs like sour cream does. If you own a squeeze bottle, you can load it with crema and squirt it all over the plate like I did.
The sour cream, though, shouldn't be left out—it's thick and tangy, and it brings a cooling effect to counter the spicy and hot ingredients. The key, though, is to serve the sour cream as an optional dip in the middle of the nacho pile, which I'll explain next.
My third realization came courtesy of my nacho-research companions.
"What do you guys think is the most important thing for a great plate of nachos?" I had asked them. Ross thought for a moment, then said, "What I don't like is when you get a plate where the tortilla chips around the edges are easy to grab, but mostly dry, and then the ones in the center are loaded with toppings, but they're so covered that there's no good way to grab them."
Yes, I thought, he's right. The ideal plate of fully loaded nachos has plenty of goodies on all the tortilla chips, but not so much that you have to go up to your knuckles in goop to dig them out.
Now, one way to solve this is to meticulously build each tortilla chip individually. That can be good in some situations, but it's way too involved and precious for a big platter of fully loaded, bar-style nachos like these—plus, I think there's something to be said for the pleasures of hunting for particularly well-topped chips.
Instead, my solution was to spread the tortilla chips in two layers on a small rimmed baking sheet (technically a quarter-sized baking sheet, but you could also use a baking dish), but leave a space in the center.
I coated each layer with enough warm cheese sauce and refried beans (which I had thinned to a pourable consistency) to touch just about every chip without completely drowning them, then topped them with sliced jalapeños, cooked black beans, and lots of grated cheese (I used a combo of sharp cheddar and Monterey jack).
After about five minutes in the oven to warm it through and melt all the cheese, I topped the nachos with drizzles of crema, cotija cheese, pico de gallo, cilantro leaves, and thinly sliced radishes. As for the space in the center, that's where I dropped heaping mounds of guac and sour cream right before serving. The beauty of this is that they can be used as dips without burying a whole bunch of perfectly good nachos underneath.
What About Chili?
I know what you're thinking: If these are fully loaded nachos, why isn't there chili, or at least ground beef?
Well, I hear you, and I too sometimes love meat on my nachos. I actually had a great version with chorizo on my nacho-research endeavor. But I just don't think these need it because they have more than enough going on already. If you want to add it, though, we've got you covered with this amazing chili recipe.