Nachos are quite possibly the best appetizer one can get. The possibilities (and fun) are endless when it comes to toppings and flavor combinations. The mixture of the salty crunch from the tortilla chip and any number of cheeses normally means that I consume the whole plate of nachos by myself and it reduces me to a state of complete self loathing.
Departing from the usual one restaurant review, I went to four different restaurants to try their nachos. Originally I had planned on spreading it out more, but I had an extremely busy few weeks and figured it would be more true to the review if I ate them closer together. While initially it was a good idea, I sit here with the worst food hangover of my life. Despite this, I do not regret my actions.
There are several attributes I look for in determining good nachos: the quality of chip; good quality cheese; an even distribution of toppings. If there isn’t an even chip-to-topping ratio then the whole experience is moot.
I wanted to try a variety of nachos, so I tried to go to vastly different restaurants. The first restaurant I went to was Black Dog located in Downtown Champaign. I love barbecue and my experience with Black Dog has always been good, so I knew that this would be a tasty experience.
The nachos ($8.95) were made with freshly fried tortilla chips and topped with pit beans, pickled jalapeños, BBQ ranch, and meat (I chose beef brisket). There is also the choice between cheddar cheese and the ghost pepper jack cheese. I like spicy food, but I wanted to actually taste the nachos, so I chose cheddar. The chips were extremely good, mostly because there were two distinctive layers so the chip was extra crunchy. The BBQ ranch was also really good. It was very sweet and a bit smokey, and it blended well with the pit beans. I thought that the beans would clash with everything else, but oddly it worked well with the chips. Normally I try to avoid eating jalapeños because they make me hiccup, but I wanted to see what it tasted like pickled. It made the spicy factor more mild as well taste sweeter. The toppings were placed evenly around so there was an even distribution of everything. My only criticism was that there were not enough chips for the amount of topping, Despite this, I enjoyed them very much.
The next place I went to was Crane Alley so I could experience more of a traditional pub nachos. These particular nachos ($13) come with green chile and tequila braised chicken, smoked gouda mornay, jalapeño, tomato, and chimichurri (alright, so maybe not quite traditional pub nachos). The ingredients sounded high quality, and tasted high quality as well. The chips were good, but I would say they were like any other tortilla chip you could get at the store. What made this iteration remarkable was the chicken. It was extremely flavorful, the tequila was not overbearing and the green chile came through beautifully. There was a good amount of heat from the chimichurri. It was a beautiful, vivid green that made the dish look a little more polished than your average plate of nachos. The jalapeños were very fresh and crunchy, which is a characteristic that I have not experienced before with this specific pepper. It reminded me of green peppers in texture. The heat was reduced a bit from the gouda mornay, which was rich and slightly nutty in taste. Overall all these nachos were really very good, though the chips were not as good as the toppings.
Up next was Maize, a traditional Mexican restaurant that makes everything from scratch; something that becomes obvious once you eat their food. I have been there many times, but I always get the burritos (they come highly recommended). I was really excited about trying the nachos here because I heard the tortilla chips were amazing. The nachos ($9.95) come with cheese, beans, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole, and meat if you want it, and I chose steak. I was not misinformed about the chips; they were everything I wanted. They were thicker, crunchier, and more heartier than a traditional tortilla chip. It made all the difference in the dipping process. The toppings were so fresh, and it was not very spicy at all. This dish was a bit more simple than the Crane Alley one, but I felt that it was more of what I wanted in nachos. The guacamole was perfect in texture — nice and smooth, and there was not too much salt. The pico de gallo was easily the best part of it because it was so fresh and delicious, not like a processed salsa at all. I could tell that it was made in house. And finally, the nachos were layered. The toppings were perfectly distributed, not just on top, but throughout the entire dish. It made it infinitely more enjoyable to eat. I had a feeling that I was going to like the nachos here, and I was not disappointed.
Last but not least I went to Huaraches Moroleon, another traditional Mexican restaurant. I had never been there before so I had no idea what to expect. I ordered the nachos supreme ($6.50) which came with cheese, beans, rice, pico de gallo, sour cream, jalapeños, and steak. When I received them I noticed immediately that the cheese was actually nacho cheese — the kind that is distinctively orange and normally can be found at movie theaters. I was worried at first because I normally do not care for that kind of cheese. However, once I started eating them I did not notice it as much. The rice was a perfect addition to the dish. It added so much texture to it, making me feel that I was eating something more substantial than your typical nachos. The chips, in contrast with Maize’s chips, were very thin and crispy, but they were very delicious. They were perfectly salted and delightfully crunchy. I have to say that when I think of traditional nachos, Huaraches definitely will come to my mind in the future. They were very much a comfort food, and it was very satisfying.
I have learned a very important lesson this week: there is such a thing as too many nachos. I never thought that I would eat this many nachos in one week, and I would never recommend anyone else to follow suit, but I had so much fun doing it. If I had to pick one plate of nachos that really stuck out to me, I would have to choose Maize. The overall freshness of the food really made the nachos stand out, and once I am recovered from this crazy week, I will definitely be going back there to get more nachos.
All photos by Merry Thomas.