The popularity of nachos has never been in doubt, but who do we have to thank for this snackable combo of chips and cheese? The Mexicans? The Texans? Mexican Texans?
That's not an easy question to answer. Like many beloved dishes, nachos have several creation myths—all of which seem to start with hungry, and often famous, travelers, and end when crafty chefs with empty pantries make do with what they have, improvising on-the-fly dishes that become almost instant classics.
Likewise, there are many debates swirling around how nachos should be made: What kind of cheese should be used? Is sour cream a superfluous ingredient if the nachos lack a spicy zing? But, let’s face it: Who cares? The only thing that's certain about nachos is that eating them should be fun.
With that in mind, Neighborhood Notes scoured the city's restaurants and bars in search of nachos that seemed to reinvent the time-tested ingredients of beans, meats, chips and cheese. What we found were Indian nachos, meatless nachos, and even a specialty version made especially for vegans who have trouble digesting gluten. In other words, nachos for everyone.
Vernon, Alberta Street
The staff at Bollywood Theater refers to Dahi Papri Chaat as “Indian nachos" and it's easy to see why. What you taste are chickpeas, potatoes, sprouts, finely diced red onions and tomatoes, yogurt, tamarind chutney, and fresh cilantro, all layered over sturdy whole-wheat crackers. These "nachos" look like a colorful Jackson Pollock painting—seemingly random in construction, but actually quite tastefully and carefully plotted. And they taste like a masterpiece too. The yogurt is cool and creamy, the chutney is tart, and the Kashmir chili powder that dusts the whole shebang gives it the zip you want in a plate of nachos. Yet despite the careful assemblage, you might think of this dish as an easy one to make. It's not. Bollywood owner and chef Troy MacLarty says the recipe runs as long as four printed pages. And even though they may be hard to make, they sure are easy to eat.
Bollywood Theater, 2039 NE Alberta St., 971.200.4711
When you think of nachos, you often picture a kitchen sink jumble of ingredients that, when put together, looks like an artless mess—a lovingly made, delicious mess—that's more Rorschach than Rothko. But, Trigger's nachos have been deconstructed. What you get instead of that jumbled mess is a half-dozen carefully composed mini nachos, each one independent of the others. Each is topped with homemade refried beans, a deceptively generous amount of smoked brisket, and a four-cheese sprinkling of sharp cheddar, monterey jack, mozzarella and cotija. Then, each is dolloped with lime crema, sprinkled with cilantro, and crowned with a pickled jalepeño slice. But what truly separates these mini-nachos from all the others are the tortilla chips, which stay incredibly—impossibly—crisp. In other words, you can pick up each one, take a healthy bite, and the architecturally sound toppings will never collapse, nor will the chips break apart. Plus, Trigger gets bonus points for its napkins, which cooks across the city will recognize as durable cloth kitchen towels.
Trigger, 128 NE Russell St., 503.327.8234
Tea Zone & Camellia Lounge
While restaurants are often experimenting with the nacho recipe, some substitutes, like tachos, are just not capable of doing the heaving lifting of beans, meats and cheeses. At the Camellia Lounge, the staff skips the tortilla chips and instead uses crunchy, sturdy kettle potato chips. And the nachos come two ways: The Happy Dragon Chips are topped with diced, marinated chicken breast, jack, blue and cheddar cheeses, and come with a ramekin of blue cheese dressing for pouring or dipping; and likewise, the Iron Goddess Chips come with a ramekin of ranch dipping sauce and are topped with Mediterranean ingredients like green and red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, and a blend of jack, cheddar and feta cheeses. The only warning here is: Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it, and get more of it than you bargained for—the happy hour versions will easily satisfy two—so bring a friend—and the regular menu order will require no less than four pairs of hands to finish.
Tea Zone & Camellia Lounge, 510 NW 11th Ave., 503.221.2130
Woodlawn, Woodlawn Triangle
If you were to sum up Breakside Brewery's pulled pork nachos in one word, you might use the word ginormous. They are. But considering that a pyramid-sized platter of them weighs no less than three pounds, it's probably more honest to employ the word dense. They’re dense with pulled pork, which rests in a black-peppery rub for a full 24 hours before a 12-hour braising. They’re dense with cheese (jack and cheddar). And they’re dense with black beans, guacamole and sour cream. About the only things that don't weigh much are the salsa fresca and jalapeño rings that are scattered atop. And that's just the “regular” version. The "imperial" nachos, weighing in at six pounds, are enough to feed your family, and maybe even the family at the neighboring table, so use caution when placing your order. But what makes these nachos a consistent crowd pleaser is their abundantly placed ingredients—the cheeses aren't just melted over the top, they're buried on the inside too, melted into the dish's several layers. In fact, you get the impression that these well-constructed nachos are exactly what the cooks would make for themselves.
Breakside Brewery, 820 NE Dekum St., 503.719.6475
There's an old Chevrolet Step-Van parked in a driveway outside of a home in Lents. Inside that van is a vision that every east side vegan can get behind: vegan Mexican food. El Nutri Taco's vegan menu is incredibly generous, featuring almost 50 vegan and vegetarian dishes, including a mean vegan nachos made with black beans, avocado slices, Tofutti sour cream, jalapeños, Daiya cheese, and salsa fresca. Most importantly—meat or no meat, cheese or faux cheese—these nachos taste the way nachos should but leave you feeling the way you wish they always did: with the energy to run a race rather than the desire to take a nap. Plus, they're accompanied by a trio of salsas (verde, habanero and a creamy avocado), all of which are vegan. Practice omnivorism? Don't worry. El Nutri Taco makes lots of meaty dishes too, but the vegan nachos are good enough to melt the hearts, and maybe even the minds, of the most obstinate carnivores. Don't find yourself on the east side all that often? There’s a spot on NE Alberta Street as well.
El Nutri-Taco Woodstock, 8438 SE Woodstock Blvd., 503.788.3492
El Nutri-Taco Alberta, 2124 NE Alberta St., 503.473.8447
Liberty Glass is a cozy, charming little restaurant and bar that's just a stone's throw from the southern end of North Mississippi Avenue's commercial stem. Besides offering a relaxing environment and a mac and cheese that many swear by, Liberty Glass also serves up nachos—with Triscuits. If you're wondering why the switcheroo, consider that Triscuits, with their woven ribbons of wheat, have an architectural integrity that some tortilla chips lack. Triscuits hold up well when they're loaded with melted jack cheese, roasted red peppers, freshly sliced jalapeños, and a sprinkling of black olives. The melted cheese is gooey in the middle and crispy at the edges, and the black olives bring a textural depth to a plate already heavy on texture, as well as a slight, but important, vinegary kick. Plus, these nachos are served with a ramekin of "cracker sauce"—sour cream that's been whipped with black pepper and a pleasing amount of minced garlic—that ties the whole plate together.
Liberty Glass, 938 N Cook St., 503.517.9931
Irvington, Northeast Broadway
If you’ve ever traveled south on Route 27 toward the Florida state line, there comes a moment not long after crossing that line where the vegetation changes, gradually at first, and then dazzlingly, and all at once. It's then that you realize that you're not just in the Deep South—you're deep in the tropics. In a way, that awakening is a lot like how the act of eating Blossoming Lotus' vegan, gluten-free, raw Live Nachos feels. You're not really prepared to be wowed, especially if you're a carnivore, but savoring this batch of nachos is like experiencing a series of small explosions in your mouth. The robust chips, made with ground walnuts, tomatoes and various seeds and grains, are bound together with agave and dehydrated for two days before they're ready to be served. Topping them are a nacho cheese made from zucchini and tahini sauce, a chorizo made with ground pecans, a sprinkling of red onions, tomatoes, cilantro and scallions, and a pair of zigzagging stripes of cashew sour cream and avocado dressing. The best part isn't just the taste, it’s the way those tangy flavors pleasantly mingle in your mouth—you can feel their effects on the roof of your mouth and in your gums along each and every tooth—which might explain why the staff insists that the Live Nachos are the menu's most popular dish.
Blossoming Lotus, 1713 NE 15th Ave., 503.228.0048