What is often called Tex-Mex cooking — its practitioners prefer simply "Mexican" — is of recent enough vintage that the actual origins of certain popular dishes can be identified with some certainty. Take nachos. This dish was invented in the Mexican town of Piedras Niegras in 1943 or thereabouts, right across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. The creator was Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, who worked at a restaurant called the Victory Club. Late one evening, after the restaurant had closed and the chef had gone home, a group of American servicemen from nearby Fort Duncan came into the bar demanding something to eat. Ignacio obliged them by cutting some stale tortillas into wedges, heaping on some grated mild cheddar and decorating the top with slices of pickled jalapeno. They were a huge success, and came to be called nachos, in deference to his nickname.
That's the Wikipedia story, but Texas food expert Robb Walsh (in The Tex-Mex Cookbook) tracked down a contrasting version that a reporter from a San Antonio newspaper garnered from Ignacio himself in 1969. (He died in 1975.) According to this account, a quartet of American lady tourists were sitting in a restaurant known as the Moderno one afternoon getting tipsy on chicos, a mixed drink made with tequila and blackberry brandy. They wanted some of the usual fried tortilla chips and salsa, but there were no chips in the kitchen. Thinking fast, Ignacio cut up tortillas, arranged cheese and jalapenos on top, and thrust the pan in the oven. The tourists were delighted. Later, Ignacio moved to Eagle Pass, and opened a place called Nacho's Restaurant.
As Walsh goes on to note, nobody can really claim to have invented nachos. It's a preparation that could have spontaneously arisen anywhere, and hence doesn't quite rise to the level of a recipe. Still, the idea had wings, and soon nachos were becoming an empty vessel for jumbled chips poured from a bag and topped with any combination of ingredients. Like fried calamari and Buffalo wings, the dish was incorporated into the bar food-canon, and from that point there was no stopping it.
But while modern nachos often consist of an anarchistic assortment of chips randomly topped and tossed, the original nachos, as extensive research in Texas has shown me, were carefully arranged on the plate, preferably on Fiestaware, then garnished with care and precision before a final broiling. Here's an example of the original nachos, as seen in Austin, Texas, and a choice sampling of the nachos currently available in New York, along with the categories they belong in.
Original Tex-Mex Nachos: Most of the diehard Tex-Mex places serve symmetrical nachos, identically topped and served separate on the plate for ease and daintiness of eating. The plate shown above is from Polvos on South First Street in Austin, Texas. Note that some extraneous toppings are offered in heaps, so you can dip individual chips at will.
[El Cantinero's nachos]
Original Tex-Mex Nachos, New York Style: El Cantinero is probably the city's oldest Tex-Mex restaurant, dating from the time in the '60s and '70s when Tex-Mex was the only kind of Mexican food we had. The nachos are served in true border-town fashion, and reflect the simplicity and orderliness of the original conception. 86 University Pl, 212-255-9378.
[El Jalapeno's nachos]
Tex-Mex Nachos, Pueblan Style 1: Southern Mexican restaurateurs in town realize that nachos are not from their part of the country, but have enthusiastically adapted it, knowing New York diners love the dish. At El Jalapeno, that means creating a well-ordered, symmetrical array, but then bombing it with all sorts of Mexican ingredients, running from queso seco and crema to lettuce and chopped tomatoes. The result looks like a sunflower. 81-10 Broadway, Queens, 718-205-2666.
[Sabor A Mexico's nachos]
Tex-Mex Nachos, Pueblan Style 2: While the Pueblans sometimes eschew Tex-Mex ingredients, the cooks at Sabor A Mexico, which has long had a branch among the nacho-loving bars of the Upper East Side, here bite the bullet and wisely flow their nachos with pure "cheese-food product," i.e., Velveeta. 160 1st Ave, 212-533-4002.
[Tulcingo Del Valle's nachos]
Patriotic Pueblan Nachos: Venerable bodega-taqueria Tulcingo Del Valle treats nacho-making as an opportunity for patriotism by smothering its nachos in sauces colored and banded like the Mexican flag. The meat (in this case, braised beef tongue) is hidden underneath. Mmmm, tongue nachos! 665 10th Ave, 212-262-5510.
[El Atoradero's nachos]
Off-the-Wall Morelos Nachos: Pueblans and other Southern and Central Mexicans make nachos that basically emulate the American bar-food version, and then morph them by heaping the plates with their own familiar ingredients — crema instead of sour cream, for example, and often no melty cheeses. Here carnitas specialist El Atoradero goes a little loco and adds what look like huckleberries. 800 East 149th St, Bronx, 718-292-7949.
[Amsterdam Tavern's nachos]
Fusion Bar-Food Nachos: The anarchistic (non-symmetrical) version of nachos provides an opportunity to let loose and add all sorts of unexpected ingredients, and fusion is inevitable. At Amsterdam Tavern, a snack called Carly's Buffalo nachos merges a very cheesy take on nachos with the bar's boneless Buffalo chicken dip, and the platter could satisfy at least three or four drinkers. 938 Amsterdam Ave, 212-280-8070.
[Galway Hooker's nachos]
Irish Bar Nachos: Irish bars, of which a whole new crop have appeared in the gastropub mold during the last few years, often turn out very good nachos. These nachos show chefly touches (toppings artistically squiggled from plastic bottles, for example), but are also bland, as in this Galway Hooker rendition. 133 7th Ave S, 212-675-6220.
[Irish-Irish bar nachos]
Irish, Irish-Bar Nachos: The is a not-unusual phenomenon among Irish bars come St. Paddy's Day, a version of nachos constructed nearly exclusively out of Irish-identified ingredients, in this case corned beef, bacon, cheese, shredded cabbage, and "spicy Reilly sauce." The bar I spotted this had stopped serving them and has now been rebranded, so I didn't get a taste.
[Diablo Royale's nachos]
Hurricane Nachos: When Hurricane Sandy struck the West Village, the water rose to Washington Street and the electricity ceased for nearly a week. Restaurants managed to stay open by improvising. In this case Diablo Royale proved that nachos are perfect emergency food by treating the dish as a main course, adding skirt steak cooked by candlelight on a gas stove that still worked. 189 W 10th St, 212-620-0223.
[El Toro Blanco's nachos]
Upscale Mexican Restaurant Nachos: Aside from herbs shredded rather than chopped, perhaps a better class of chorizo, and some good tomatoes, these happy-hour nachos at El Toro Blanco are tasty but really nothing special. 257 6th Ave, 212-645-0193.
[Taco Bell's nachos]
Fast Food Nachos: The nachos at Taco Bell are spare in the extreme, with a lot of the fun taken out of the dish. Actually, though, the ingredients are pretty close to the original nachos made by Nacho, only with less love.
[Taco Bell's nacho wrap]
Wacky Fast Food Nachos: Taco Bell also recently began making a so-called nacho wrap that, unlike real nachos, you can eat while walking. The idea is clever, the fillings are rudimentary, and the thing is wrapped in a very thin flour tortilla something like a Lebanese pita, and then pressed into a triangular shape and toasted. Very weird, but not too bad. Part of the weirdness is due to the red flecks inside. Instead of being tomato or chiles, they're red-dyed.
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