Nachos are a quintessential Mexican-American dish. Legend has it that in 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, maitre d’ at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, improvised to feed a few hungry American military wives. The kitchen was already closed, so the quick-thinking Anaya allegedly fried up sliced tortillas, then smothered them in cheese and pickled jalapeños. Before long, the dish was a staple at sporting events and happy hours north of the border.
Seventy-four years later, the average plate of restaurant nachos is, well, average. But every now and then, we come across a noteworthy version of the Tex-Mex classic. We recently discovered one at Sonora Grill — the East Lake Street establishment known primarily for its all-star tacos.
Two qualities lift Sonora’s nachos ($10) above the fray: simplicity and good ingredients. Chef Alejandro Castillon doesn’t try to wow with pounds of melted cheese, meat, or anything else. Rather, he impresses with a handful of expertly created elements. Pinto beans are stewed with guajillo peppers and without lard, oil, or other fat, producing great flavor without the heavy greasiness we associate with lesser nachos. Castillon gives his crema a smoky attitude with a touch of huitlacoche (“Mexican truffle”). Instead of the usual canned (typically pickled) variety, Castillon uses a combination of fresh jalapeños and rich roasted red peppers. And the “avocado mousse” is a smooth, delicious mixture of the heavenly fruit, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeño.
Of course, nachos live or die by their cheese and chips. These babies have just enough soft white Chihuahua queso to please cheeseheads without overwhelming the other ingredients. And the chips! Crispy, flavorful, and house-made, they’re great on their own and make excellent vehicles for their nacho co-stars. The secret, according to Castillon, is fresh tortillas. That’s it. No tricks needed.
While these nachos don’t need meat, pork or chicken is available for an extra $2 and steak for an added $4. And when we interviewed Castillon, he confirmed that Sonora would allow diners to go “off menu” to order nachos with the restaurant’s well-regarded beef tongue.