Leftover Chicken Tinga? Make Nachos

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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As much as I love tacos, there are only so many I can eat before I want to move on to the next thing. With batch after batch of leftovers from working on my chicken tinga recipe, I looked for as many ways as possible to use them up. Tostadas were an obvious choice, topped with chicken, crumbled cotija cheese, and avocado. It also makes a great enchilada filling. All these things are delicious, but they also require utensils, or, at the very least, two hands and some awkward head-tilting, to eat. Not the ideal party or game-day food.

Nachos, on the other hand, are where it's at.

I've long been a proponent of pile-it-on, bar-style, fully loaded nachos, and don't get me wrong—they're still one of my favorite snacks. But ever since my colleague Josh turned me on to traditional Texas-style nachos, with their perfectly balanced, individually topped construction, I've been a convert. With chicken tinga, they make a lot of sense: Think of them as bite-size tostadas.

The real key to individual nachos is to start with great, extra-crispy tortilla chips. Store-bought bags of Tostitos simply won't do—they turn soggy too quickly. I'm lucky enough to live near some Mexican markets that fry their own tortillas, which makes nachos dangerously easy (just wait until you hear my opinion on microwaves for the task). If you don't have access to freshly fried tortillas, it's easy enough to do it at home. Start with small corn tortillas, cut them into quarters, and fry them in hot peanut or vegetable oil, turning them occasionally, just until they crisp up. Drain them on paper towels and immediately salt them. (Salt sticks much better to foods when they're fresh out of the fryer than after they've cooled.)

Once they're cooled, I spread the chips out onto a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. If I remember, I'll line that pan with foil so I don't have to pick off bits of burnt-on cheese later, though, when I'm hankering for nachos, I'm generally not in the right state of mind to remember anything (and probably not in the right state to be deep-frying things, either).

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Next, I top each chip with a little spoonful of the shredded chicken tinga filling—you'll want to let a little bit of the excess juice drain off if the tinga is particularly juicy—then top it with some shredded pepper jack cheese. I could do that typical food writer thing and make something up about how the mildness and heat of pepper jack make it an ideal match for the smoky chicken filling, but instead I'll do that other typical food writer thing and use far too many words before expressing a simple idea: So long as the cheese melts well, use whatever you'd like. Cheddar, jack, Swiss, it'll all taste good.

It all goes into a hot oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese. While it's in there, get yourself pumped up, because the last step has to take place fast, before the chips have a chance to cool and the cheese to harden. Right after they come out of the oven, top each chip with a tiny dollop of guacamole and a thin slice of radish. Remember when Jason Alexander made that McDonald's commercial introducing the McDLT and its unique packaging that kept the hot side hot and the cool side cool until you started eating? Turns out it's a terrible idea for burgers, but a pretty good one for nachos.

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As soon as the chips are topped, get them to your guests (or your own mouth) as soon as possible. Most of the time, I don't even bother transferring them to a serving platter; they'll stay hotter on the baking sheet anyway.

My favorite part of making nachos? Pressing my face against the oven door and watching that cheese slowly melt, glorious and glistening.*

* Okay, you definitely have to be in a very specific state of mind to find that exciting. Hungry is a good first step.

We always try to explain why a particular recipe works. In this case, it's pretty obvious: Melted cheese, guacamole, chicken, and fried tortillas are delicious. How about I just let a GIF do the talking?

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