I learned something about the people of Champaign-Urbana recently: Nachos are the lifeblood of this community. I wrote an article a few weeks back about some really awesome nachos at four different restaurants, and there were some spirited comments made by people who had their own favorite places that they wanted featured. In seeing all of the restaurants mentioned, I realized that I merely scratched the tip of this nacho iceberg. While I wish I could go to every single place that people mentioned and gorge myself upon this fantastical delight over and over again, I think it is physically impossible to consume that many nachos. In hopes to cover more ground, I selected four more restaurants that all were rumoured to have delicious nachos.
Considering how popular this dish is, nachos have not been around for very long. In 1943, the wives of some U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in Eagle Pass, Texas went to a restaurant in a nearby city in Mexico. The host, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, had very little left in the kitchen, so he used the only things available: tortillas, cheese, and pickled jalapeño. The dish was a hit and eventually adapted the name “nacho.” As the years went by more and more toppings were added, thus making it one of the more versatile snacks out there. However, the two ingredients that always seem to remain the same are tortilla chips and cheese.
With this in mind I went to my first restaurant, Fiesta Cafe. I have only been there a few times, and what I always took away from it was the fun atmosphere. It's definitely a place where families go to have a good time. The nachos came with tortilla chips, beans, melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sour cream, olives and fresh guacamole ($5.45), and I ordered steak to go on top (additional $2). The first thing I noticed was that there was a lot of food, which is a good thing when you intend to share it with others, but I was planning on eating it all by myself so there were a ton of leftovers. The chips were thin and crispy, and the vegetables were nice and firm. Nothing is worse than wilted lettuce on your nachos, and luckily there was none of that. Overall it looked very vibrant.
The guacamole was very tasty, mostly because there was a lot of lime mixed in, which went very well with the steak. Sometimes when steak is added to something like nachos, it is very tough and over seasoned, but the steak here was pleasantly tender and not too salty. The toppings were evenly distributed, but unfortunately there were so many that there was not enough cheese to balance it out. In fact, it was lost completely in flavor, and I had to dig pretty deep in order to find it. While I enjoyed the freshness of the vegetables, the lack of cheese was a bit disappointing.
The next place I went to was Hickory River Smokehouse. I have heard a lot about this chain's barbecue, but never anything about the nachos. The setup of the dining area is much like a cafeteria. You order at the front, get a tray of food, and then you find a seat. I really love that kind of dining because there seems to be a lot of freedom that comes with it. The nachos themselves ($7.99) were not much to look at, mostly because they were messy, but my mindset changed completely when I took my first bite. The pulled pork was the very first thing that I tasted. It was so moist and tender, and the smokiness added a velvety sort of richness that took me by surprise. The next thing I noticed was the cheese. I literally (and disgustingly) could eat an entire bowl of that stuff by itself. It was not like typical nacho cheese — there was a spice in there that tasted like nutmeg, which really complimented the richness of the pork.
There were some baked beans that tasted like they were cured with maple syrup and brown sugar, again paying compliment to the pulled pork. Basically the entire dish was a chorus line and the pork was the star. The chips were a good texture, almost like a multigrain cracker with lots of grains. There was also a more distinctive corn flavor, which I normally do not get from other tortilla chips. The only bad thing was that there were not enough toppings. The serving size for the nachos was a good amount, but in the end I had 5 chips that had no toppings on them. That being the case, I would still order them again.
The third place I went to was Fernando’s Food Truck. I have heard so many good things about Fernando’s, but I had never actually seen them around town. I had a rough time tracking them down, and I even went to Rigg’s Beer Company (where they were supposed to be for the night) but unfortunately it had rained a lot so they left right before I got there. Eventually I called the number listed on their Facebook page and discovered that they were in Downtown Champaign.
At last I had found them, and the gentlemen working that day were just the friendliest, most helpful people, making sure that I liked every topping that went on the nachos, and they were incredibly fast.
The nachos themselves ($8) were nothing short of heavenly. The chips were a bit thicker and very crunchy. The jalapeños were more flavorful than the usual ones I get, and the vegetables were very fresh. Normally I like beans or rice on my nachos to add a variety of texture, something softer to pair with the crunchiness of the chips, but this did not come with it. Instead I got avocado, which I actually liked more than beans. There was a wonderful chip-to-topping ratio, everything was evenly distributed, and there was a ton of cheese. The best part was that there was a ton of cilantro, which created a lovely freshness that I do not normally get from nachos. I really enjoyed my experience with Fernando’s nachos.
Last but not least, I went to Dancing Dog. I was really looking forward to this experience because I was hoping for something on the healthy side, and that is exactly what I got. The dish was actually breakfast-styled-nachos, so there was a tofu scramble, roasted red potatoes, roasted corn, black beans, diced tomatoes, and red onions. There was an option to add vegan chorizo, so I went ahead and tried it ($13). It was also supposed to come with vegan nacho cheese, but I am pretty sure I did not have any on mine. However, despite this it was an extremely beautiful dish. Everything was so colorful, especially the tofu scramble, and it was extremely delicious. The food was so aromatic that I could practically taste it. There was a good amount of flavor in the chorizo, not too spicy, but it definitely had a kick. There were a few things that I felt would have made the dish better: There was a relative lack of texture; since there were no chips, everything was soft. If the potatoes were more crispy that might have helped with the texture, and maybe more corn. Overall it was very delicious, but it was definitely more like a breakfast scramble than nachos.
There are so many good places to get nachos, and these four places definitely had some great dishes. I had quite the variety, but I feel that Fernando’s satisfied my nacho hunger the most out of this batch of restaurants. I definitely want to explore more places for excellent nachos, and I am really looking forward to my next nacho adventure, so feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.
All photos by Merry Thomas.