By Pati Jinich, The New York Times
The biggest claim to fame for the border city of Piedras Negras, in Coahuila, Mexico, is that it was the birthplace of nachos, one of America’s most popular snacks. Yet that fact is not widely known beyond the region, something that has long frustrated the people of Piedras, as locals call their hometown. They’re so proud of their invention that they started the International Nacho Festival there in 1995.
“The nacho origin story is the one your mother tells you since the day you are born,” said Enrique Perret, a friend of mine who hails from that city of about 165,000 people. “After I moved from Piedras to Mexico City and kept boasting about it, I realized people were either not impressed or had an intense disbelief of nachos being from Piedras, let alone from anywhere in Mexico.”
Until recently, you could count me as one of the nonbelievers. I’m a native of Mexico City, and my first time eating nachos was also the first time I went to a movie theater in the United States, when my parents took our family to visit in the 1980s.
I experienced mixed feelings: Excitement as we waited in line surrounded by flashy blockbuster movie banners, and ordered the nachos. Suspicion as the basket was filled with chips from the orange-lit heated glass box, and the ultrayellow sauce flowed hesitantly from a gigantic pump. Perplexity as I tasted the oversize salty chips covered in the creamy sauce and too few pickled jalapeños.
I finished them, but not before asking for more jalapeños, to have enough for each bite.
Years later, after moving to the United States and becoming a mother to three boys, I found nachos again in stadium concession stands, and ate them along with hot dogs every single time. In my eyes, nachos equaled American entertainment. Just like other Mexicans who aren’t from Piedras, I was puzzled when anyone called them Mexican.
Now that I’ve lived in the United States for more than two decades, I’ve begun to grasp why they defy categorization. Mexican? American? Tex-Mex? Nachos are the epitome of comida fronteriza, food from the borderlands. It’s a place where foods seem caught in a constantly evolving in-between: not from here, not from there, strongly rooted but hard to pin down.
“Not Tex-Mex, Pati,” said Adán Medrano, a chef and an authority on the food of Southern Texas and Northeast Mexico, which he refers to as Texas Mexican food. “The original nachos are Mexican through and through, and have little to do with those. I mean, enough with the cheese!”
All those nachos I’d been eating, including the superlayered ones from Tex-Mex restaurants in San Antonio, were neither the only kinds nor the originals.
Nachos were born in 1940 when, as the story goes, a group of women walked into the Victory Club in Piedras outside business hours. But Ignacio Anaya, the maître d’hôtel, had no cooks in the kitchen. Anaya was known as Nacho, the traditional nickname for anyone named Ignacio in Spanish-speaking countries.
The wives of Americans stationed at a military base in Eagle Pass, Texas, the women had crossed the Rio Grande to shop and were looking for a drink and a bite. Aiming to please, Anaya ran to the kitchen and made a quick appetizer with ingredients he found. He topped totopos, fried corn tortilla chips, with colby cheese and slices of pickled jalapeños, and threw them in the oven.
The women loved it so much they asked for seconds, and jokingly ended up calling them Nacho’s special. The dish became an essential part of the Victory Club menu, and a fixture on others in the region. Eventually, Anaya moved to Eagle Pass and opened a restaurant called Nacho’s.
“Nachos were created in a restaurant of mainly comida casera, the foods that Mexican American families were eating at the time,” Medrano said. They are essentially open-faced quesadillas — a very quick meal that’s whipped up in Mexican homes — but made crunchy and bite-size, with colby cheese.
Colby was widely used in the region during World War II, when nachos were created, said Dr. Adalberto Peña de los Santos, director of the International Nacho Festival, which is usually held in October on the banks of the Rio Grande. It was a time of hardship on both sides of the border.
“In Piedras, we used to call Colby ‘queso relief,’” he said. “It was one of the ingredients provided by the U.S. government.” People who received the cheese on the American side of the border would share, sell or barter with relatives on the Mexican side.
Peña de los Santos said it was fitting that the signature dish from the region includes an American cheese and was first eaten by Americans: It shows how fluid the food and culture of the region are, routinely blurring the border.
“When the geopolitical border came, it divided the community and the families, but not in every way,” Medrano said. “We have been living and eating this shared and coherent culinary reality for thousands of years.”
Just as American ingredients were making their way into Texas Mexican foods, Texas Mexican foods were being adapted and served as Tex-Mex — “by Anglos to please Anglos,” he said.
Tex-Mex restaurants made nachos an essential part of the menu, baptizing the chips with all of the fixings their customers had come to expect: cooked ground meat, sour cream, table salsa, pico de gallo, guacamole and pickled jalapeños. With more versions came more layers, as carne asada, black olives, shredded cheddar cheese, beans and corn were added to the dish.
It was Frank Liberto, a businessman from Texas, who took nachos to the masses in the 1970s. Two inventions made this possible: an emulsified cheese sauce that requires no refrigeration, has an extended shelf life and stays melted without heat, and a pump for the cheese so the nachos could be assembled as fast as people could order them.
Liberto introduced ballpark nachos in 1976 at a Texas Rangers baseball game, then in 1977 at a Dallas Cowboys football game. From there, they appeared at stadiums and movie theaters throughout the United States, and then one country after another.
You can find all sorts of nachos at the International Nacho Festival, Peña de los Santos said, styles that reflect trends throughout America and the borderlands, from the original recipe to nachos topped with carne asada, or pulled pork, or bulgogi. There are some with just one cheese, others with many cheeses. Many stick to pickled jalapeños.
According to festival guidelines, there are three things nachos must have: tortilla chips, copious amounts of melted cheese and some kind of chile. I would add that nachos need to be messy, saucy and provoke that “I can’t have just one” feeling when you take a bite.
You can be charmed with the honesty, simplicity and irresistible clash of flavors in the original nacho recipe: the barely salted tortilla chips, the nutty cheese with a slight bitter bite and the briny taste of the punchy jalapeños. Or you can have your fill of outrageous and over-the-top Tex-Mex versions, or top the chips with anything else you crave.
And even someone from Piedras like Perret, whose family has been there since the mid-1800s, loves a good ballpark nacho. The last time he made nachos for friends, for a Super Bowl party in February, he mixed Velveeta with milk to make something that resembled that ballpark nacho cheese, then topped the tortilla chips with chilorio — the adobo-seasoned pulled pork dish from Sinaloa — and pickled jalapeños.
“I couldn’t watch the game in peace,” he said. “My friends couldn’t get enough, and had me making batch after batch.”
The Original Nachos
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 10 minutes
- 3/4 pound store-bought or Homemade Tortilla Chips (see recipe)
- 1 pound shredded colby cheese (about 4 packed cups)
- 1 cup thinly sliced store-bought or homemade Pickled Jalapeños (see recipe), plus 2 to 4 tablespoons brine
1. Set racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat to 400 degrees.
2. Spread the tortilla chips in a single layer on two large sheet pans. Place a scant tablespoon of shredded cheese over each chip, pressing slightly to adhere. Top each chip with 1 or 2 slices pickled jalapeño. Sprinkle or spoon the pickled jalapeño brine all over the chips. Bake until cheese melts completely and begins to lightly brown at the edges, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Serve nachos immediately, directly on the hot baking sheets, or use a spatula to transfer them to a platter.
Hearty Bean Nachos With Spicy Salsa
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 1 hour
For the Salsa:
- 1 1/2 pounds ripe Roma tomatoes (about 5 or 6)
- 1/2 pound tomatillos (about 3 or 4), husked and rinsed
- 1 to 2 jalapeños, destemmed
- 1 to 2 chiles de árbol, destemmed
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, leaves and upper stems, plus 1 cup reserved for garnish
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
- Kosher or sea salt
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
For the Beans and Vegetables:
- 3 cups (1/2-inch) diced peeled carrot or sweet potato (or a combination)
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup finely chopped white onion, plus 1/2 cup reserved for garnish
- 1 cup finely chopped celery
- 1 1/2 cups cooked, drained pinto beans (from about 3/4 cup dried beans or a 15-ounce can)
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds store-bought or Homemade Tortilla Chips (see recipe)
- 1 pound shredded cheese (any combination of Oaxaca, Monterey Jack and cheddar)
- 1 cup Mexican crema
1. Prepare the salsa: Place the tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapeños, chiles de árbol and garlic in a medium saucepan. Cover with at least 6 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium-high. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the tomatoes and tomatillos are cooked through and mushy, the jalapeños have softened and the chiles de árbol have plumped up, about 10 minutes.
2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked vegetables to a blender, setting aside the cooking liquid. Add the cilantro, cumin and 3/4 teaspoon salt to the blender; purée until smooth.
3. Prepare the vegetables: Bring the reserved vegetable cooking liquid back to a simmer over medium-high heat and season generously with salt. Once it comes to a boil, add the carrots or sweet potatoes, or both, and cook until tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Pour the cooked vegetables into a colander, discarding liquid, and set aside.
4. Wipe the saucepan dry, then add 1 tablespoon oil and heat over medium. Once the oil is hot, pour in the salsa, partly cover it with the lid, and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened and the color has deepened, 8 to 10 minutes. Set salsa aside.
5. Prepare the beans: In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium. Once hot, add the onion and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 8 minutes, until completely softened. Raise the heat to high, add the cooked carrots and/or sweet potatoes, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring a couple times, until beginning to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the pinto beans and cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed, another 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt, then remove from the heat.
6. Assemble the nachos: Set a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 400 degrees. Place all the tortilla chips in a half sheet pan or large baking sheet. Cover the chips with the bean mixture, ladle the salsa all over the top and cover with shredded cheese. Bake until cheese has completely melted, about 10 minutes.
7. Spoon the crema over the top and garnish with reserved cilantro and chopped white onion. Serve hot!
Homemade Tortilla Chips
Yield: 1 to 1 1/2 pounds
Total time: 1 hour, for frying or baking
- 30 (5-inch) fresh corn tortillas (about 25 ounces)
- Vegetable oil (about 4 cups), as needed for frying or baking
- Nonstick cooking spray, for baking
- Kosher salt or sea salt
1. Collect the tortillas into 2 tall stacks and cut into 6 even wedges. If frying your tortilla chips, proceed to Step 2. If baking your tortilla chips, proceed to Step 3.
2. To fry your tortilla chips, line 2 large baking sheets with paper towels. Set aside. Fill a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet with about 1/2 inch vegetable oil (about 4 cups). Heat over medium until the oil reaches about 350 degrees and is hot but not smoking, 6 to 10 minutes. You can see if it’s ready by dipping a tortilla wedge into the hot oil. It should bubble immediately and enthusiastically. Gently add enough tortilla wedges to fill the skillet in a single layer without crowding, and fry for about 1 minute per side, using a spider or a slotted spoon to flip them over, until lightly golden and crisp. (Do not allow them to brown too much or they will taste bitter.) Using the spider or slotted spoon, transfer the chips to the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle immediately with salt, so it adheres to the glistening chips. Repeat until all chips are cooked, transferring cooled chips to a large bowl and replacing the paper towels as needed. (Let the remaining oil cool to room temperature, then strain and transfer to a bottle to reuse it for future deep frying.)
3. To bake your tortilla chips, position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat to 375 degrees. Brush 2 large baking sheets with oil or spray with cooking spray. Working in batches, scatter the tortilla wedges on top in a single layer without crowding too much. (The chips should barely overlap.) Lightly brush or spray the tops with oil or cooking spray. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, remove from the oven, flip the chips and return to the oven, until lightly browned and crisp, another 15 minutes. Remove from the heat. Immediately sprinkle with salt to taste, so the salt will stick to the chips. Repeat with remaining chips.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 1 hour
- 2 pounds ripe Roma tomatoes or 2 (15-ounce) cans fire-roasted tomatoes
- 8 ounces thick-cut bacon, thinly sliced
- 8 ounces fresh Mexican chorizo, casing removed, coarsely chopped
- 1 1/2 pounds beef sirloin, excess fat removed, meat cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- Kosher or sea salt and black pepper
- 1 medium white onion, halved and slivered (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 1 to 2 jalapeños or serrano chiles, halved, deseeded if desired, and sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds store-bought or Homemade Tortilla Chips (see recipe)
- 12 ounces shredded Mexican melty cheese, like Oaxaca, Asadero or quesadilla, or even Monterey Jack or mozzarella (about 3 cups)
- 1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted and finely chopped
- 1 cup crumbled queso fresco
- 8 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
1. If using fresh tomatoes, place them on a small baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Place them under the broiler for 8 to 10 minutes, turning halfway through, until charred, mushy and juices have begun to run. Remove from heat. Once cool enough to handle, chop them without discarding any of the juices, seeds or charred skin.
2. Heat a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it browns slightly and renders some of its fat, 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Add the chorizo to the bacon, and cook, breaking the sausage into smaller pieces using a wooden spoon as it begins to brown and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes.
4. Add the beef, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring a couple times, until it begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Incorporate the onion and jalapeño and cook until they begin to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant but not browned, less than 1 minute.
5. Stir in the fresh or canned chopped tomatoes with their juices and cook over high, stirring occasionally, until saucy, 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
6. Set the rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 400 degrees. Place all the tortilla chips in a half sheet pan or large baking sheet in an even layer. Cover the chips with the bricklayer meat mixture and all of its chunky salsa. Cover with the shredded cheese. Bake until cheese has completely melted, 8 to 10 minutes.
7. Garnish with the avocado, crumbled queso fresco and scallions. Dig in while hot!
Yield: 6 to 7 cups
Total time: 15 minutes, plus cooling and at least 12 hours’ refrigerating
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 6 ounces white pearl onions (or trimmed spring onion bulbs)
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 pound whole jalapeños (stems intact)
- 1/2 pound medium carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick on the diagonal
- 2 cups distilled white vinegar
- 1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
- 5 dried bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 5 whole cloves, stems removed and discarded, rounded tops crushed between fingertips
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a large (12-inch) skillet or a heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-high until hot but not smoking. Add the onions and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally, until their outer layer begins to soften. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute, until it barely begins to turn golden. Incorporate the jalapeños and carrots, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring a couple times, until the jalapeño skins begin to slightly dull and wrinkle.
2. Stir in all remaining ingredients and simmer briskly for about 7 minutes, until the liquid reduces and the vegetables soften. Turn off the heat and let cool.
3. Transfer the pickled vegetables and their liquid into a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for at least 12 hours. (They will last for at least 1 month.)