sheet pan nachos at diego's cantina photo by carmen troesser

The art of nachos

Infinitely customizable and sure to please nearly anyone regardless of diet and taste, nachos are an opportunity to get creative in the kitchen while only putting in as much work as you feel up for. If you’re looking for a weekend project, nachos are a great vehicle for slow-cooked proteins and homemade condiments of all kinds. Or keep it easy and get everything you need at the grocery store. Either way, there are some basic principles of assembly and key ingredients that should go into even the simplest batch of nachos to guarantee transcendent bites every time.

Chef Ben Welch, whose barbecue nachos from his now-closed restaurant Big Baby Q and Smokehouse were a Sauce staff favorite, points out that a great plate of nachos is a play on textures. “You’re going to have your nacho chips as a base, so you’ve got your crunch factor,” he said. “And the beans are creamy and flavorful, and they provide a little bit of sauce.” Following this initial base layer of “flavor and fat,” Welch adds protein like leftover rotisserie chicken, ground beef or smoked meat or tofu; if he’s serving vegetarians, he might use fajita vegetables in place of meat. “And then you have to have your liquid cheese sauce,” he concluded firmly.

Many nacho chefs go to great lengths to eliminate any liquid from their nacho construction, shunning ingredients like salsa or juicy meat that might jeopardize a chip’s crisp. Welch, however, takes the exact opposite position. “My favorite nacho is the nacho that’s kind of soggy – you pick it up and it kind of bends,” he explained. “A soggy chip means it’s been soaked in flavor. How can you not like that?”

Similarly, Diego’s Cantina chef and co-owner Natasha Kwan not only layers salsa directly on Diego’s beloved sheet pan nachos but actually includes it as one of her baked components as well. “Salsa’s cooked anyway – it’s not pico de gallo,” she pointed out.

While contrasting texture is one critical component of successful nachos, well-balanced flavor is another. With each layer, Welch thinks about how he’s building and layering flavor, “building it with fat and spice, lots of acidity.” For both Welch and Kwan, lime is essential. “Never not squeeze lime on your nachos,” Kwan instructed.

Unlike Welch, Kwan bakes her nachos (on a sheet pan, as the name suggests). However, she only bakes the chips, cheese and salsa; everything else is added after the sheet comes out of the oven. “Then your toppings. We even top our proteins – our beans, our chicken – after.” For meat, Kwan uses braised chicken, “so it’s already got that broth and spices, so it’s more moist and tender.” These warm ingredients – in the sense of both spiciness and temperature – are then topped with “cooling ingredients” like crema (Mexican sour cream) and raw vegetables and herbs like radish, tomato, onion and cilantro. These lend freshness as well as another form of crispness to the mix.

“I think radish is super overlooked,” Kwan commented. “It’s used in all Mexican cuisine.” Not only does radish offer another element of crunch, it’s spicy as well, but in a different way from the dried peppers used to flavor protein or pickled or fresh hot pepper one might use add more flavor. “When you combine the radish with everything else, it comes together,” she said.

And finally, a word about cheese, arguably (besides chips) nachos’ definitive component. (The first nachos – invented by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, the maître d’ of a restaurant in the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras in 1943 – are said to have used Wisconsin cheddar.) Welch prefers to use his cheese sauce as a final layer of his nacho composition, which he finishes with garnishes like candied jalapenos and fresh herbs, while Kwan points out the utility of adding the cheese to chips first. “Your cheese always acts as a barrier. In our kitchen we call it glue,” she explained. “It makes stuff stick and it makes stuff less soggy. It eliminates any sog potential.”

Kwan is adamant that those on plant-based diets can enjoy their nachos just as much as an omnivore, and one way is to swap vegan cheese for dairy. But not all vegan cheeses are created equal. “I prefer a cashew cheddar or a nut-based cheese rather than what you would find in the store,” she said. “When you do a cashew-based cheese, it is more like a sauce, but it’s going to cook really well in the oven.” The problem with many of the vegan cheeses in the grocery store, she explained, is “the melting point starts at 400 degrees. You can’t put it in a convection oven because it won’t melt. They’re just harder, so you’re not going to get that meltability.”

That said, sometimes you’re pressed for time and skipping the cheese is just not an option when it comes to even the most basic plate of nachos. In those cases, Kwan recommends that vegans reach for Vio-Life brand cheese. “Vio-Life is absolutely phenomenal,” she raved. “I use a lot of their cheese at Frida’s [Kwan’s other restaurant, which focuses on vegetarian cuisine]. Everyone who’s plant-based knows about their feta – their feta’s phenomenal.”

Using the basic principles of texture and flavor to guide you, hopefully these experts’ tips will inspire your own ideal plate of nachos, one that melds crunch and creaminess, salt, acid and fat, freshness and spiciness. Once you’ve got these foundational pieces nailed, the world – or at least the nacho pan – is truly your oyster.

Pepper Jack-Hatch Chile Queso
Courtesy of Big Baby Spice Co.’s Ben Welch

1 quart

3 Tbsp. butter, cubed
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
¾ Tbsp. Cajun spice
½ Tbsp. ground coriander
½ Tbsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
¼ tsp. ground Ancho chile
½ tsp. kosher salt
1½ cups room-temperature milk
1 cup room-temperature 40% cream
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
½ cup Hatch green chiles, drained
4 oz. room-temperature pepper Jack cheese, cubed
4 oz. room-temperature sharp cheddar cheese, cubed
4 oz. room-temperature white American cheese
2 tsp. canned jalapeno juice

• Place a heavy-bottomed, large pot (one that easily holds a gallon) over medium-low heat. Add the butter and melt.
• Create a roux by adding the flour and stir well to combine. Add the Cajun spice, ground coriander, ground cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, ground Ancho chile and kosher salt. Allow to cook slowly for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching. Set aside.
• In another stock pot, combine the milk, cream and Dijon mustard; bring to a boil. Remove from the heat but keep warm. (At this point, you can also add both mixtures to your slow cooker and cook on low for 2 to 3 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.)
• Carefully and slowly, whisk the hot liquid into the hot roux until well combined.
• Simmer the sauce, stirring often and thoroughly to prevent scorching, until thickened properly.
• Remove the pot from the heat and add the green chiles, cheeses and jalapeno juice.
• Stir by hand or blend with an immersion blender until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth, or allow to cool to warm and then blend in batches in a stand blender.

Vegan “Cheese” Sauce
Courtesy of Frida’s and Diego’s Cantina’s Natasha Kwan

4 servings

1¼ cups water (less if you want a thicker consistency)
1 cup raw cashews (macadamia nuts also work well)*
4 oz. nutritional yeast
2 oz. diced red pepper
1 oz. onion powder
1 tsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. smoked paprika
Dash garlic power
Dash Himalayan sea salt

• Place all ingredients in a high speed blender and blend until smooth, up to 3 to 4 minutes, depending on your blender.

* You can substitute coconut milk for cashews, but do not add water.