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How to Make Real Texas Nachos


Real Texas nachos need nothing more than fresh fried tortilla chips, melted cheese, pickled jalapeño, and—if you insist—beans. [Photographs: Joshua Bousel ]

On one of my earlier trips down to Texas, back when the concept of dating someone from the Lone Star state still felt like an odd novelty, I inevitably found myself in one of the Tex-Mex "cantinas" that dot almost every corner throughout the Houston area. As I placed my order for nachos, the server, sensing I wasn't from around those parts, pointed out that I was likely not going to get what I was expecting.

For a Northerner like me, nachos are bar food, and I've got a love-hate relationship with them. They taste awesomely indulgent when they're done well, but more often than not, the bulging mass of chips is so overburdened with salsa, chili, guacamole, and all manner of wet toppings that the chips become soggy and the cheese turns into a cold, rubbery mess before you're even halfway to the bottom.

What the server told me I'd be getting instead was a much more modest affair: Individual crisply fried tortilla chips topped with a bit of cheese and a slice of pickled jalapeño, with some sour cream served alongside.

I liked those nachos well enough—my main thought was that they didn't hinder my appetite for the fajitas that followed—but it wasn't a truly ground-breaking experience. For the most part, I let the memory of those nachos slip away.

It wasn't until Lisa Fain, author of Homesick Texan, wrote an entire post on this authentic regional nacho variety, that my love affair with them really took off. Winding through the backstory, I found myself captivated. I learned how nachos were the creation of a closed kitchen in Eagle Pass, TX that needed to feed some hungry customers back in 1943, and how they became bastardized with melted processed cheese 34 years later in San Antonio.


I thought back to those nachos I had a few years earlier in Houston and felt that maybe they'd deserved more attention and love than I'd given them. But Lisa's photos of nachos also looked way better than what I'd been served. Could it be that it was the execution that was underwhelming and not the concept?

I fried up a batch of tortillas, topped them with Longhorn cheese (the original nacho cheese, as Lisa points out), adorned each with a single slice of pickled jalapeño, and baked them until the cheese was melted.

This time around, there was a grand nacho awakening.


Each chip was crisp, with a strong toasted corn flavor, while the cheese lent its gooeyness without softening its supporting vessel—frying chips fresh, followed by a bake, gives them more structure—and the jalepeño added a fresh tang and spicy heat that was powerful but not overpowering. It struck a perfect balance; an exemplary snack if there ever was one. Since that day, every fajita, enchilada, and taco I cook up at home seems to just be an excuse for me to make Texas nachos as well, and I haven't changed the recipe up one bit.

So when I was thinking of how to expand on these nachos for this post, I approached it in reverse from my normal process—instead of working to find the best recipe, I took what I already deemed to be the absolute best Texas nacho and see if there's anything at all to justify changing them.

Let me walk you through my base recipe to begin.

The Glory of the Fried Tortilla

Getting that perfectly crisp crunch is absolutely essential to a good Texas nacho. I started by hitting the supermarket to see if any store-bought options would stack up.


That said, none of the store-bought options hit it out of the park, so I turned to frying my own.


With a combination of only three ingredients to make a nacho, each one needs to be pretty damn good. Starting with the base, that tortilla needs to shine, and I have yet to find a bagged chip that can go head-to-head with a freshly-fried one. Luckily, it's a pretty quick process.


I start with a stack of standard taco-sized tortillas and cut them into quarters. Then I drop them into oil that's been heated to 375°F in a cast iron skillet. I usually use canola or peanut oils because they're the all-purpose, neutral frying oils that I always have on hand. As the edges of the chips begin to brown, I flip them and keep frying until they're golden brown. The whole fry usually takes about three minutes per batch, and remember: always salt fried foods the moment they come out of the fryer so that the salt will stick to their surface. Finally, I drain my chips on paper towels to help wick away excess moisture.


The intensity of corn flavor in these chips outdoes anything I can pick up off the shelf, plus the added thickness is great for holding. Most importantly, they stay nice and crunchy after the introduction of cheese.

Getting Cheesy


The second component of the success of a great Texas nacho is Longhorn cheese. Longhorn is merely a Colby cheese that gets its name from a cylindrical shape. A soft and mild cheese, this makes the nacho because it provides a lot of creaminess without a heavy flavor that would compete with the chip and jalapeño.

Unlike store-bought tortillas, I thought other cheeses could possibly do some good here and tried out a few to see what may work:


I'll stick with real Longhorn when I can find it, knowing that regular old Jack will make a fine substitute when I'm in need.

More or Less (Toppings)


Finally, the single slice of a pickled jalapeño has been the only extra topping I've ever needed on a Texas nacho. It's the only truly authentic topper, although a slew of others seem to be acceptable in sparse moderation—refried beans, sour cream, a little meat, or salsa.

Sticking to the minimalist ideals that attracted me to these nachos, I didn't go crazy with other toppings, but gave some of the standards a go:

Ultimate Texas Nachos?


Simplicity is the essence of the Texas nacho, but what if you take the American spirit and dump all the toppings onto one chip—like a more standard version of nachos, although keeping the individual aspect alive. I loaded up a few chips with beans, cheese, jalapeño, guac, and sour cream to see, and dug in.

Even with an onslaught of toppings, the freshly fried chips kept their crispiness, but that was the only really good thing going on here. These nachos tasted confused and lost their delicate balance that make Texas nachos work so well. It was excess for excesses sake.


So in the end, I'm sticking with the standard: freshly fried corn tortillas, a sprinkle of Longhorn, and a single slice of pickled jalapeño. If I happen to have refried beans—I usually don't—or sour cream—I usually do—I may add them on, but won't go out of my way to mess with the perfection of a nacho that Texas has bestowed on us.

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