In the canon of American bar food, is anything more quintessential than nachos? They’re an ideal snack for a group gathered to watch a football, basketball, or baseball game on a giant TV screen, and they satisfy a range of preferences — you can enjoy a perfect chip of cheese, guacamole, and beans, while your friend can be content with his favorite blend of meat, sour cream, and jalapeño.
Legend has it that the infamous assemblage of cheese and chile on top of chips originated in the 1940s. Nachos are said to have been created by Mexican restaurateur Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, who used slim pickings from the kitchen to satisfy hungry American patrons visiting his restaurant after it had closed for the day. He christened the dish “Nacho’s Especiales,” and the rest is history.
Even the most run-of-the-mill of today’s nachos are far from that simple compilation of chips, grated cheese, and jalapeños. To sample the variations Santa Fe chefs have dreamed up, I toured the city’s bars and casual restaurants — which turned out to be a daunting, gut-bombing task, given that nearly every spot with chips and beer on the menu offers some variation on the theme. But in the name of research, I soldiered on in an attempt to provide at least a cursory survey of what’s available — and to reveal the few kitchens that aren’t afraid to break with tradition.
Several popular bars around the city serve perfectly delicious, though not groundbreaking, plates. Perhaps the most simple are the nachos at Maria’s, where a moderate amount of cheese is melted over sturdy chips and then generously strewn with pleasantly mouth-searing pico de gallo that’s heavy with diced jalapeño and onion — this is not an appetizer for a first date, but it makes a nice accompaniment to one of Maria’s famous margaritas.
Río Chama builds an impressive mountain topped with a blanket of cheese, guacamole, a generous ration of sour cream, diced tomato, and either earthy smashed black beans or your choice of meat. My only beef is the use of whole slices of fresh jalapeños, which can be difficult to bite and are often mouth-searingly hot. The delightfully smoky fresh green chile makes things a little juicy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided you’re OK with finishing your nachos with a fork.
Cowgirl’s nachos have something for everyone, with the highly preferred pickled jalapeños, a smoky tomato-based salsa, black olives (a nice retro touch), sour cream, chopped red onion, black beans, and guacamole on the side. Naturally, there’s plenty of cheese that’s bubbling and sometimes deliciously scorched on the edges — but that also translates to several chips getting unappetizingly blackened as well.
Thunderbird — another popular destination for sports fans on the town — serves a plate of red and yellow chips that’s a little less eye-popping than the others, but still satisfies. The kitchen trades black beans for fibery pintos, and fancies things up with a drizzle of crema over the pico de gallo, guacamole, and plentiful pickled jalapeño.
Del Charro, the self-proclaimed “saloon” at the Inn of the Governors, is a warm, friendly place that’s popular with tourists and locals alike. Their killer nachos are a generous mound of chips thoroughly lacquered with cheese and crowned with plenty of pico de gallo and pickled jalapeños. Note, though, that the addition of sour cream or any protein at all, including black beans, will result in an upcharge.
Nachos at Second Street Brewery can be daunting — blue and yellow chips utterly buried beneath a blizzard of cheese, guac, pico de gallo, and sour cream (if you’re in the mood to gild the lily, you can add one of several meats, including bacon and pork belly). Somehow, they stay crispy almost all the way to the bottom of the pile.
Three spots stood out, however, for their creative spin on the traditional nacho mountain. Coyote Cantina’s nachos totopos are something akin to a nacho Napoleon, with smoky pulled pork, black beans, avocado-tomatillo and red chile sauces, cheese, and additional fresh chiles layered between whole fried round tortillas. The stack is blanketed in more salsa verde and dolloped with sour cream and guacamole. It’s an insanely rich, complex plate that could easily feed four.
A few blocks away, at the recently revamped La Fiesta Lounge at La Fonda, nachos have been “deconstructed.” This really just means that what arrives at your table are a basket of chips, a smoldering-hot dish of molten queso fundido with beans and your choice of meat, and a small oval plate crowded with other typical nacho toppings: pico de gallo, sour cream, pickled jalapeños, guacamole, and shredded iceberg — and you assemble each chip independently. If you’re dining with a group of individuals who have differing opinions about what constitutes an ideal nacho, this is the way to go — each chip for each person can be different.
After downing so many plates of nachos, a girl just needs a salad. Accordingly, I power-walked to Vinaigrette, but even this vegetable-forward kitchen has hopped on the nacho bandwagon. One recent special appetizer was a kale-and-black-bean nacho — a small, undaunting plate of just four sizable, house-made corn chips. These fall squarely in the Texas-style “composed” nacho camp, with a dedicated amount of each topping applied to a chip rather than being randomly strewn over a pile of them. There’s soft, buttery avocado here, too, and a salty, citrusy dressing. Two make for a satisfying snack that’s relatively healthy but still feels indulgent. Now if I could just watch the Cubs game at Vinaigrette ... ◀