8 Priceless Pieces of Nacho Wisdom

It’s not difficult to make a good plate of nachos. But a great plate of nachos requires skill. 

It’s not difficult to make a good plate of nachos. But a great plate of nachos requires skill. Chefs Dennis Spina and Homer Murray of Brooklyn’s River Styx have proved their nacho prowess with their much-lauded plate of house-made tortilla chips, gooey stadium-style cheese, braised chicken and silky crema. It’s a piece of cheesy, crispy, alcohol-absorbing art—a dish that straddles some heretofore undiscovered line between precise haute cuisine and sloppy bar food. Here, the chefs share their expert nacho knowledge.

The worst tortillas make the best chips. “A tortilla that you would never want to make a taco out of that’s dry and weird and crumbly—when it’s fried, it turns into the best chip,” says Murray. “It’s handy for everybody because that way you don’t have lousy tacos and you get good tortilla chips.”

Nachos should turn into soup. “After 10 or 15 minutes you want your nachos to congeal and make the ultimate nacho—crispy on the outside, gooey in the middle,” says Spina. “And then you want it to turn into a soup,” says Murray. “It’s the evolution of the nacho.”

Crema needs mayonnaise. At River Styx, the chefs make the crema with sour cream, lime juice and mayonnaise. “It’s a flavor conductor,” says Murray. “It makes things taste better.” But not just any mayo will do—the chefs opt for Kewpie. “It’s a special kind of flavor conductor,” Spina says.

Nachos are the choose-your-own-adventure of food. Spina and Murray don’t distribute the toppings evenly over the nachos. Instead they have piles of chicken in one section of the plate with the cilantro in another and so on. “You can cruise around,” Murray says. “There’s a little bit of radish on one side, a bit of jalapeño on the other—get a bite of one, get a bite of the other. It keeps things interesting. It shouldn’t just be one monotone flavor the whole time.”

The best nacho chip needs time to marinate. “You want to get it where the exterior of the chip is still firm enough so you can pick it up but the middle has absorbed a lot of the cheese—but you also don’t want the cheese to be cold,” Murray says. “I would say it takes exactly eight and a half minutes.”

Cheese sauce makes things special. “You can make nachos in the oven with shredded cheese any time,” Murray says. “But you rarely see liquid nacho cheese at your grandma’s.” At River Styx, the cheese sauce is made with cream, cheese, pickled jalapeños and hot sauce. “The key is not to cook it too hot or too fast,” Murray says. “You can let it chill, and it will turn into a sauce on its own.”

Chicken before cheese. The chefs take the order in which the toppings are added to the chips very seriously. “Chips, chicken, cheese, salsa, onions and then everything else,” says Spina. “Chicken before cheese, always.”

Beer is nachos’ best friend. “I find beer to be very helpful with nachos,” says Spina. “Just next to it, in a glass.”

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