Nachos are one of those dishes that can be an appetizer, entree, or snack…almost as good of an “anytime food” as pizza, although you don’t see many people chowing down on cold nachos for breakfast. They’re a bit messier but just as versatile when it comes to toppings, as I found out when trying five variations of nachos around town. (It wasn’t easy but someone had to do it. Read part one and two of SP's previous nacho adventures.)
My first stop was Destihl in Downtown Champaign, a popular bistro and brewery that offers a wide variety of dishes. Simply titled Skillet Nachos ($10.95), these are served in an individual cast iron skillet with pork confit, a healthy sprinkling of cilantro, lots of tasty melted cheese, fresh jalapeño, and tomatoes. Sour cream can be served on the side. They were seasoned well but not overly salty (not an easy balance to strike, actually) and the skillet had a nice mixture of browned chips and soggy chips loaded with toppings. If you like a good blend of texture and flavor, these nachos will hit the spot. Huge for one, but perfect for two or three people. I paired this with a Basil Bulleit, one of their signature drinks, but cold beer would also go nicely with them.
Destihl's Skillet Nachos
Murphy's Irish nachos
Like most townies, I frequent the spots on campus during the summer or winter break. I had never been to Murphy’s Pub but I stopped in on a quiet weekend day to check out their nacho offering. It’s a large dive bar with scarred tables and booths, which most locals probably know before going in. Not having gone to the University of Illinois, or ever having been to Murphy’s Pub, I was transported back in time to when I was in college and frequented places like this. The bartender and chef, the only two there at the time, were super friendly, and the food was made to order. To shake things up a bit, I went with the Irish nachos, which were half off because I ordered a drink ($8.50 before the discount.) Instead of corn chips, these nachos were served over waffle fries, loaded with cheese, bacon, olives, green onion, tomato, jalapeño, with salsa and sour cream on the side. Served hot and fresh, these would pair perfectly with a beer or five, and could feed several hungry people craving salt and fat. The fries make these nachos more filling than when made with standard corn chips. Maybe I’m a purist, but as delicious as these nachos were, and I do love a loaded fry, I didn’t get the same level of satisfaction from these as nachos made with corn chips. However, it’s a terrific take on them and for $12, you can get nachos and a drink. Not bad at all.
For round three, my husband and I went to Guido’s, also in Downtown Champaign. I've had the nachos there in years past, but I was pleasantly surprised to see they’d slightly changed them. They used to be served on a large bed of blue, red, and white tortilla chips, but they’ve done away with those and gone with a smaller, crisper, triangular chip. I really liked these and thought they upped the prior version. I ordered my nachos with chicken ($11.25, the priciest of all), which was finely chopped and on top of the dish. Accompanying the chicken were jalapeños, green onions, tomatoes, black olives, melted cheese, and shredded lettuce. Sour cream and guacamole were served on the side. There was a lot going on here. If I had to nitpick, I would say far too many black olives were put on and I had to pick off quite a few of them. The toppings were piled high, but at the top of Nacho Mountain, they weren’t held together with any cheese, so these got really messy really quickly, with an avalanche of chicken and other trappings falling everywhere. The guacamole is finely pureed and has a nice flavor, but both my husband and I agreed that if they squeezed the sour cream and guacamole on top from a bottle, the nachos would feel more “dressed,” and you would get the flavor without having to dip a precariously loaded chip into a small cup.
Flavor was good when I could strike a nice balance of everything in these nachos. They weren’t as well seasoned as Destihl’s but they are not a shabby version of nachos by any means.
Stop number four was getting out to La Mixteca, a new-to-me spot in Urbana at Cunningham and East University. I brought a friend with me so we could sample what I hoped would be the best nachos of them all so far. Finding this place was a bit tricky, as it’s in a small shopping center, but once there, you find plenty of seating and attentive service.
I’m going to just put out there right now that what stole the show was the frozen strawberry margarita: it was strong but appropriately strawberry-y; however, the real kicker was the cayenne pepper/seasoned salt mix on the rim. It was so much better than the usual salt you get. If you love a good margarita, give this place a try.
As for the rest of the meal: the chips and salsa they serve before you get your meal were really good. The mild salsa was very flavorful and one of the better ones around town, in my opinion. So far, this place was delivering.
La Mixteca nachos
I ordered the nachos supreme with chicken ($7.99) and waited with anticipation. They arrived on a very large, impressive looking plate. The chicken was seasoned well and the nachos looked freshly made with lots of melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and jalapeño. Unfortunately, these were the least seasoned of any of the ones I had tried. They were quite bland and I wasn’t able to finish them. I had also ordered a side of rice and beans, just to try theirs out, and they helped round out the meal very nicely.
Despite the nachos being disappointing, everything else was excellent, and my friend had no complaints about her dish. I would definitely go back to try other dishes, and certainly another frozen margarita.
Chester's BBQ nachos
Rounding the nacho bend(er) was Chester’s BBQ food truck. It sets up next to Tumble Inn near Downtown Champaign and update on Facebook where and when you can find it, which is much appreciated, considering how elusive some food trucks can be around this town.
My husband and I tried Chester’s on a rainy weekend night and took it to go. I ordered the pulled pork nachos for $9, he ordered a Cuban and some potato salad, and off we went.
While there weren’t nearly as many toppings to this nacho, what you do get is a very healthy amount of pulled pork with barbecue sauce on top, which melds with the gobs of melty cheese. The round yellow corn chips and cheese made me think of movie theater nachos, which isn’t a knock at all, but that gives you an idea of what you’re getting. The pulled pork was smoky, tender, and quite flavorful; the mild barbecue sauce was also nicely spiced. These nachos were piled pretty high, so although other toppings were nowhere to be found, I felt I got my $9 worth. (And not for nothing, but if you tie on a few at Tumble Inn, these nachos will rock your world.) Some jalapeño or Tabasco sauce would add some extra punch and acidity, if you have those at home and that’s your thing.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed Destihl’s version of nachos the most, but as I discovered, how they were seasoned definitely affected my overall rating. If I didn’t consider myself a connoisseur of nachos before I took this assignment, I do now. If you’re looking to up your nachos game or just need an excuse to try a new-to-you restaurant, head to any one of these five places this summer.
Photos by Zoe Valentine