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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.
- Tostitos: Being the standard supermarket chip, Tostitos were the first brand I turned to. These white corn chips held up well to the nacho treatment structurally speaking, but their salt layer was so heavy that it overwhelmed the cheese and jalapeño.
- Tostitos Simply Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips: With the regular chips not doing the trick, I turned to my preferred Tostitos. The "natural" yellow corn variety has a more robust corn flavor and dials back the salt; it made a more well-balanced nacho than the original, but I thought it had a slightly muted flavor.
- Flour Tortillas: I've had nachos in Texas served on flour tortillas that were pretty awesome, so I gave it whirl here. Unfortunately, the standard-issue grocery store flour tortillas didn't provide the flavor or texture of the lard-laden tortillas you'd find in Houston, and the nachos were dull all around.
- Nacho Cheese Doritos:: If people go nuts for Doritos tacos, why not Doritos nachos? I picked up Doritos kind of as a joke, but they ended up being oddly appealing. They started to burn around the edges in the oven, but the double dose of nacho cheese actually worked with the cheese and jalapeño, making for a strangely delicious nacho. It's no stand-in for a regular corn tortilla, but it did end up being my favorite of the store-bought chips.
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.
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:
- Sharp cheddar:Taking a step up the cheddar ladder, I tried out a sharper variation. This wasn't bad, but the flavor with a little distracting when compared with the more mellow Longhorn.
- Monterey Jack: Giving another Tex-Mex classic a shot, Jack cheese ended up being on point. Like Longhorn, it melted really well and had a light flavor that harmonized with the tortilla and jalapeño.
- Oaxacan: I love the salty, stringy character of Oaxacan cheese in my tortas, and thought it might translate well to nachos, too. But...I was wrong—the Oaxacan cheese didn't melt well, requiring more time cook, which caused the chips to overly darken. Once cooked, it was dry and made the nacho just a tad too salty.
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:
- Refried beans: The only topping to visually appear in Lisa's original nacho post, it was time I tried out refried beans for myself. These were pretty killer, a light smear of beans under the cheese added a rich, creamy texture and a pork-y flavor that made them stand out, in a good way, from those with a jalapeño alone.
- Sour cream: Ending the nachos with a small dollop of sour cream also turned out to be a good thing. The tang was a nice compliment to the whole thing, although it did dial back the heat from the jalapeño.
- Fresh jalapeño: Swapping pickled jalapeños for fresh wasn't quite as good of an idea. The fresh slices dried out and lost some of it heat and fruitiness in the oven. It paled in comparison with the snappier, juicier, and tangier pickled jalapeño.
- Guacamole: Like sour cream, a bit of guacamole provided a nice creamy touch. It drowned out the jalapeño a bit and the other ingredients in the guac made the nacho lose some of its simplicity, but it still tasted really good.
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.