An Ode to Nachos

Last Update: February 7, 2024

I love nachos. Most people I know love nachos. 

Nachos are simple, but they host multiverses of possibilities. When you mention the dish, memories pile atop one another: summer parties in the cul-de-sac, the neon yellow cheese glow in the bleachers, salty fingers at the movie theater. Nachos are a shimmery food; almost anyone can tell you what they are, but to narrow nachos down to a definitive recipe is nearly impossible. 

When I begin researching a new piece, I ask friends and coworkers for their tastes and thoughts on a topic — whether that is grazing boards or shaved ice or even cream cheese. The more I dived into the concept of nachos, the more I found two ideas emerging: 

First, there is nachos as the platonic ideal of the dish: a savory multi-texture soiree of chips, cheese, and toppings. 

Then, there is nachos as a format: a diving board for other flavor combinations that are equally as delectable, shareable, and comforting as the original dish. 

A Nacho Bar Cheat Sheet

Seemingly everyone has their own opinion on what nachos are. Some prefer an oven-baked preparation; others opt for a queso to dip chips in. Where does the guacamole go — on top of the chips or also on the side? Beans or no beans? Refried or whole? Though the variables are tight, the debates on how we load our plates are as endless as the number of combinations possible. 

The solution I propose to do right by everyone is to let everyone make their own plate. If you have the means, give everyone the gift of their own preferences. The act of assembling nachos is one of the most basic forms of cooking, piling handful over handful of ingredients atop one another until you’ve erected a tower of absolute, cheesy delight.  

It’s a process that is completely intuitive. Sometimes folks dance around with cilantro and radish, opting for fresh elements to lighten heavier parts of the dish. Sometimes someone has a hard day at work, and all they want is to be flooded with luscious queso. The nacho bar is a noncommittal playground for ideas and experimentation, ultimately aimed to satisfy your hunger.  

I polled my coworkers, friends, and family members for their must-have nacho bar components, and made a cheat sheet for building your own bar. Pick and choose a couple options from these categories and you’ll be on your way to becoming a master nacho builder. 

  1. Chips 

For a classic nacho bar (we will get into funkier variations later), the chips must be of the tortilla variety, and they must be light, crunchy, and salty. The chip not only is the vessel for the cheese and toppings, but it also brings in toastiness and texture that grounds the louder elements of the dish. 


  1. Shredded Cheese

There are two schools of nacho-thought at play: shredded cheese OR a cheese sauce/queso. Each possesses its own advantages and disadvantages; in the spirit of the nacho bar, I say, do both. Shredded cheese on chips is your best friend if you are making a limited amount of nachos (i.e. for yourself and up to three to four people). 

Hot tip: Shred your own cheeses! Not only will you intuitively shred the right amount of cheese you need, but pre-shredded varieties come coated with a layer of starch that can get gluey when melted. 


  • Colby
  • Cheddar
  • Colby Jack 
  • Monterey Jack
  1. Queso

Queso is the caulk of the food world; it fills in, fuses, racks the nachos into focus. There are a plethora of recipes for queso out there. If it’s too much hassle, opt for one of the awesome vegan quesos at Thrive Market. 


  1. Fresh Toppings aka Veggies

Look, nachos are not a salad. However, nachos become exponentially better once you add vegetables and herbs. The amounts of flavor and texture you deny when you opt out of vegetables is staggering. The cold crunch of a radish. The sweetness of a pickled red onion. The creamy balance that an avocado brings. 


  • Onions
  • Cilantro 
  • Tomatoes
  • Radishes
  • Pickled Vegetables (Jalapeños, Onions) 
  • Scallions
  • Avocado 
  • Black Olives (controversial) 
  • Iceberg Lettuce (shredded)
  1. Beans

I am here to champion the humble bean. Though the bean is a vegetable, it deserves its own section. Beans are an affordable way to bring heaps of protein onto your plate. I also want to say, beans bring spices and different flavorings to the party! Whether refried or stewed, they provide a creaminess and a chew that when fused with whatever cheese you have, is, undeniably, nacho. 

Hot tip: I love A Dozen Cousins’s bean offerings. Quick to prepare and flavored with Cajun, Mexican, and Caribbean flavors, they are a welcome addition to any plate of nachos I make.


  1. Meats (And the Adjacent)

Rounding out protein, let’s talk meats and meat-adjacent foods. I recommend you go classic. If your area hosts a carniceria, walk in, grab their house-made marinated meat, and get cooking. Like our friend the bean, meats bring tons of flavor that tend to determine the personality of the final nacho.

Hot tip: Texture is everything with meat. Grill, sear, broil hot and aim to get crispy bits. This may be sacrilege, but I would choose to let my meat get slightly overcooked if it earned me a better sear. Meat will be chopped up, crumbled up, and dispersed amongst the cheese anyways. 


  • Carne Asada
  • Al Pastor
  • Chicken Tinga
  • Ground Beef (season this, please)
  1. Sauces, Toppings, and Friends 

This last category is a catch-all for any sauce that won’t dominate the plate the way cheese or queso would. The following are best on the side (so they won’t add to the song) and in small, calculated amounts.


  • Sour Cream
  • Crema
  • Queso Fresco
  • Guacamole
  • Hot Sauces

Testing Notes: Nachos Beyond the Bar

In dissecting a particular food, I begin to learn its grammar; the dish unravels into its basic, sensory parts, similarities and differences, various personas and identities that can project itself into the nacho. 

  • Gluten-free Nachos. Tortilla chips are gluten-free! Choose a gluten-free queso or top with hand-shredded cheese, and you’re golden. 
  • Vegan Nachos. For any vegan preparations, prioritize your protein. A nice soy-rizo packs a ton of flavor. Top with a nice vegan queso, and you are good to go. 
  • Raw Nachos. Crudité! Hummus! Feta! It is still a nacho! 
  • Breakfast Nachos. Our photographer, Brittany raves about her boyfriend’s weekend chilaquiles. He first sautees tomatillos, onions, and garlic in a pan before adding chunks of cotija cheese. Instead of adding the chips directly to the hot pan, he opts to use the heated salsa as a topping, along with a nice sunny-side-up egg.  
  • Japanese Nachos. Hot off a trip to Tokyo, Design and Organic Social Media Manager, Jeff had the idea to make a Japanese nacho. Opting for a wasabi glaze instead of traditional cheese, Jeff adds “Sashimi, avocado, radish, garlic corn, [and] coriander” to a milder tortilla chip. 
  • Dessert Nachos. One of my favorite people to talk about food with is our Managing Editor, Laura. Based on her love of this awesome chocolate covered matzo toffee recipe she loves, dessert nachos was born. Matzo is the perfect mirror to chips; its mild flavor but crunchy texture holds up to the melted chocolate, nuts, fruit, and ice cream (cheeky) we threw at it. 
  • Sangria Nachos.  We are finally here. In a bowl, add slices of apple, watermelon, strawberry, and any other in-season fruit. Crack a cinnamon stick and throw that in. Glug a bottle of a nice, fruity wine. Splash of brandy? Sure. Store in a fridge overnight. Drinking solely the liquid is sangria. Eating the fruit as a fruit salad… My friend, that is nachos. 

How Do You Nacho?

The chip bags burst open like fireworks on the fourth of July. Co-workers surround my desk at our photo studio downtown, which has been decorated in all the fittings of what I call my perfect nacho bar: A pile of minced onions sits next to a quart container of pickled ones that glow pink from red wine vinegar. The queso I lost track of is scorched on the bottom (but most of it is salvageable). Cilantro, refried beans, roasted jalapeños, and shredded cheese. Everyone grabs a handful chips and dresses their plate — each combination slightly different yet similar. 

Near the end of the day, Brittany takes a bite of the last nacho we prepared for this story: the dessert nacho. The matzo breaks and a bit of the melted chocolate drips over chin and barely misses her clothes. Laura tells her, “it’s not nachos if you are not making a mess”. What a mess nachos are — a glorious mess worth preparing, partaking, sharing with people you deeply care about.

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Jon Kim

Jonathan Kim is a writer and poet living in Southern California. He loves cheese and pickles.

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