Nacho Showdown: The Sporkful's Dan Pashman vs. The Food Lab

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

You might not know it, but there's a debate raging in this country right now. No, it doesn't involve politics or foreign policy or the national debt. It's about nachos. Yes, nachos. And the divide can sometimes seem insurmountable. On one side, you have the PILE-IT-ON style of nachos—the kind you'll find at most sports bars and restaurants across the country. You know what we're talking about: a massive stack of chips layered with shredded cheese, jalapeños, a random olive or two, some meat, cooked beans, and so forth. And then there's traditional Texas-style nachos, where the chips are individually topped with refried beans, cheese, and pickled jalapeños, and served in a single layer, creating a series of uniform, balanced bites.

So which kind is better?

We asked our own Texas-nacho-loving J. Kenji Lopez Alt to go head-to-head with piled-high nacho fanatic Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful podcast and Cooking Channel web series You're Eating it Wrong. While we're not sure this spirited debate will solve anything, we do think the back-and-forth between these two highly opinionated writers is well worth the (albeit free) price of admission. And so, without further ado, may the best chip win.

Dan Pashman's Take: Nachos Should Be Piled

Let me begin by saying this: I like Kenji López-Alt. He's a friend of mine, a good family man, and a patriotic American. But when it comes to nachos, Kenji López-Alt doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.

On my podcast, The Sporkful, we often discuss the concepts of Bite Consistency and Bite Variety. With some foods, you want a consistent ratio of components in every bite. (Seven-layer dip and cheeseburgers are prime examples.) With others, such as snack mix and pho, you want to enjoy a variety of bites throughout the eating experience. Knowing whether to pursue Bite Variety or Bite Consistency in a given meal is crucial to maximizing deliciousness in life. The tension between these two paths lies at the heart of my nacho disagreement with Kenji.

I concede that individually prepared nachos allow for more precise ratio management and are more consistently crunchy. However, I would argue that those are not qualities you should seek when making nachos. Instead, you should seek Bite Variety. Consider the many choices you can make each time you compose a bite from a single plate of typical piled nachos:

  • Cheesy chip or cheese-free chip?
  • Crunchy chip, chewy chip, or saturated chip? (More on that terminology in a moment.)
  • Sour cream, guacamole, salsa, none of the above, or some combination thereof?
  • With jalapeño or without?

I'll save you the math. Assuming you've got your basic six toppings—cheese, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, jalapeños, and meat—there are 64 possible topping combinations you could have on a single chip. That's 64 different bites from a single plate, and that's assuming that the relative order of toppings doesn't matter (add that element into the equation and you've got a full 1,957 possible different bites to enjoy). Piled nachos are a technicolor palette from which you can paint one delicious masterpiece after another! But an individual nacho can only ever be one nacho, no matter how beautiful it may be.

Which would you rather have: the Mona Lisa, or THE ENTIRE CONTENTS OF THE LOUVRE?

I hasten to add that I'm not here to defend bad nachos. It's true that many bar nachos are covered with too little cheese and too many other toppings, which turn the whole dish into a lukewarm pile of goop. But to argue in favor of individual nachos on the basis that piled nachos are often bad is to construct a straw man of my argument, and I won't stand for it from Kenji or anyone else. (Ditto for any argument about the greatness of homemade tortilla chips, which can be used in any kind of nachos.)

We are talking, then, about high-quality piled nachos, which means good chips and a reasonable number and quantity of toppings—primarily salsa, guacamole, sour cream, and a sprinkling of jalapeños. There might be some pulled chicken, perhaps a bit of pork with little or no sauce, but definitely no chili. A well-constructed pile of nachos also delivers an ample amount of cheese, which I'll define as covering 80% of the chips. This is best achieved by building the nachos in two layers of chips, with one layer of cheese in the middle and another on top. The reasons may seem self-evident, but in addition to the obvious blessings it provides, melted cheese creates a seal over the nachos, reducing soggage—but not eliminating it.

And that's a good thing.

The Bite Variety you get with piled nachos isn't just about mixing and matching toppings: it's also about mixing and matching chips. Soggy chips, which I'll henceforth refer to as saturated chips, have their place. They're imbued with flavor and provide a delightful textural counterpoint when paired with chewy, cheesy chips or dry, crunchy chips in the same bite.

Kenji, and the rest of the individual nacho set, brag about the crunch their style offers. But crunch alone is tiresome. Like a drug, it's simultaneously addictive and unfulfilling. Sensory scientists tell us that what we truly crave in texture is dynamic contrast. Crunchy and crispy textures are much better when paired with softer, chewier accompaniments.

And that pairing is even more satisfying when it hasn't taken you half the day to experience it. Making individual nachos is a painstaking process, especially if you prefer the more ornate varieties. Piled nachos couldn't be easier.

What's that? You disagree? Well, good news: With piled nachos, we can agree to disagree and all go home happy and full, because piled nachos can be all things to all people. That's the beauty of Bite Variety. In contrast, individual nachos are inevitably tailored to an audience of one, even when consumed in a group setting. In a way, they're the perfect dish for the modern age, this on-demand era in which we sit with friends at a bar staring at our phones, each consuming our own custom-tailored content, together in body, but in spirit, so, so alone.

Piled nachos are a collective experience.

That said, it's true they provide an opportunity for certain eaters to take way more of the toppings. What should we do about that? This question is one our country has debated for centuries. To what degree should a centralized authority determine how resources are allocated, and to what degree should the invisible hand of the free market decide?

I propose the One Hand Two Chips Rule of Nacho Morality. It states that you may take one hand and grab up to two chips at a time, and whatever comes with those chips is yours to eat. This ensures everyone has a shot at topping glory, but also allows for those especially gifted at nacho chip selection to reap the benefits of their talent.

To solve the problem of nacho hogs by giving everyone individual nachos is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. We live in a world where there's a cable news network and blog for every political orientation. We curate our Facebook and Twitter feeds to make sure we only hear from people who agree with us. And as we increasingly draw from different sets of facts to form our differing opinions, we grow further apart.

We need to TALK TO EACH OTHER. We need to EAT NACHOS TOGETHER.

When we eat piled nachos, humans actually meet face-to-face to interact, work out our differences, and find common ground on the question of how to share precious resources like melted cheese. In fact, piled nachos have a lot in common with America. Different people want different things out of the experience. The situation gets messy sometimes. But in the end, they endure, united.

So, my fellow Americans, can we come together under one big, thatched tortilla chip roof of deliciousness? Can we state with one voice that, when it comes to nachos, Bite Variety is superior to Bite Consistency? Can we finally agree that piled nachos are superior to individual nachos?

Yes we can.

Kenji López-Alt's Take: The Best Nachos are Individual Nachos

I want to start out by saying that I admire Dan Pashman—as a friend, a colleague, a fellow lover of all things delicious, but that does not mean that I have to admire his taste. More than once I've found myself accidentally startling pedestrians in the crosswalk in front of me as I let out an impassioned cry of WHAT?!? as I listen to—and violently disagree with—one of his wacky ideas in an episode of The Sporkful. (We can talk about the relative faults of hot dog bun handles and upside-down pizza another time.) Like any great debater, Dan makes impassioned and well-reasoned arguments, even when he knows he's wrong.

Take his stance on nachos. Piled-on nachos sound great on paper—they probably even look great in your mind's eye—but as I will demonstrate, they are a markedly inferior eating experience to true Texas-style nachos.

In a debate about authenticity and history, Texas-style nachos win, hands down. It's where it all started. But blind trust in so-called authenticity has never held much sway for me—nobody is thinking to themselves Ah, just like Ignacio Anaya's 1943 original as they chow down on their chips—so I'll focus instead on what's important: namely, eating quality. As Pashman points out, bad examples of both nacho styles abound; in order for this debate to have any meaning at all, we should focus only on the best iterations of each type.

I know Dan's all about Bite Consistency versus Bite Variety, but at the end of the day, it's a false dichotomy. The true dichotomy lies within that pile of nachos: the only bite variety we actually get is that some bites are great and some bites are downright terrible.

Search your feelings, Dan, you know it to be true.

The pile arrives on the table hot, crispy, and gooey, a glorious amalgamation of textures and flavors. This is the moment when piled-on nachos shine. You might reach for that one chip that has just a touch of sour cream on its lip, or the one with a full-on blanket of cheese. But your joy is fleeting. Within moments the cheese starts to coagulate, turning that soft gooey blanket into a rubbery straight jacket. Take a look around at the bar next time and see how many people are still digging into their half-eaten plates of nachos with gusto. More likely, you'll see a few dejected faces dutifully picking at scabs of cheese, wondering exactly which decision led them to this particular juncture in their life (Hint: it was that time they ordered the pile of nachos).

20160415-nacho-debate-04.gif

Individual nachos, on the other hand, have no such problems. They come with a sensible number of chips to an order, arranged on a hot plate in a single layer. And that hot plate is important! It retains heat and ensures that every nacho, from the first to the last, is crispy, gooey, and delicious, the way nachos are intended to be.

But having that same bite each time is BORING! I hear Dan lament in his made-for-radio voice. My only response is: no, it isn't. First, it takes all of what, 10 minutes to house down an order of nachos? Do you get bored half way through eating your hot dog? How about half way through that burger? If you can't sustain interest in one subject for 10 minutes—particularly a subject that is so great you can practically feel perfection caressing your belly—then you really ought to sit down and have a talk with someone, starting with your wife.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, most of the variety that piled-on nachos offer is of the "some are good, some are bad" type. Sure, it's not boring to alternately have your feet massaged then take a tire iron to the kneecap, but I'd rather have just the massage, please.

Constructing a great bite is also an issue as you bumble around the plate, trying to build your masterpiece. The idea of having a box of multi-colored legos with no instructions is great, in theory. In reality you end up with a clumsy, technicolor, hodgepodge of bricks (which, coincidentally, is exactly what over-piled nachos feel like in your belly). Is that a psychedelic octopus? A diseased tree? Or is it a submarine designed by a race of beings who somehow wrangled the difficulties of underwater travel before they managed to work out the basic principles of aesthetics and balance? Who knows. All I know is that when I follow the instructions, when I stack just the right number of bricks in just the right order, my patience and effort are paid off with a SPACESHIP or a CASTLE.

Tell me, Dan, would you rather go into battle with the Millenium Falcon or a diseased tree on your side?

Now, let's get into the mechanics of eating piled nachos. In almost every context I can think of, individually-topped nachos are either better or stand on equal footing with their piled counterparts.

We've already covered longevity: a single layer of nachos on a hot plate stays fresh-tasting longer than a big pile of nachos where even on a hot plate, those middle chips end up with leathery cheese slabs.

But what about messiness? Some may argue that the messiness of piled-on nachos are part of their appeal. I'll grant that you have a point there. There are times that I want to break free of the shackles of fork-and-knife, dainty-bited eating, and there's no better way to do that than to get my hands (and shirt) messy while diving into a pile of loaded tortilla chips. But more often than not, messiness is something I put up with in the pursuit of flavor, not the other way around. Individual nachos give you the option of messiness. Piled-on nachos require it.

Piles of nachos also invite social anxiety. Order a pizza or a basket of chicken wings for a group and you're solid. It's clear what you're getting: no matter what piece you grab, it'll basically be the same as its fellows. Individually-topped nachos? Same deal. But with piled-on nachos, there's always that one bite that looks better than any of the others and more importantly, everyone at the table knows it. It's sitting there. That one chip with just the right amount of cheese draped over it, the pickled jalapeño dead center, the two exposed corners—one for grabbing, one for guacamole—that dollop of refried beans just-so. Do you assert your dominance and take it? Do you point it out and offer it to someone else? Here's a more likely scenario: nobody takes it at first, it just sits there, its cheese slowly hardening, its beans drying out, so that by the time somebody finally does work up the guts to grab it, its moment of glory is gone. It's just another rubbery-cheesed, soggy brick in the wall.

Let's get one thing straight: so long as they're made with care, the only bad nachos are no nachos, so no matter who wins this debate, nobody really loses. Big piles of nachos give you variety at the cost of quality. Individual nachos provide equal awesomeness with each bite. After all, this is America, where all nachos are equal, but some nachos are more equal than others.