Food

Five Essential Rules of Nachos From a James Beard Award-Winning Chef

Houston's Chris Shepherd is serious about snack food, and he wants to make sure you win Super Bowl Sunday.

Get your nacho game on.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

In the world of food, some dishes requires recipes, other don’t. And on the face of it, nachos would seem to fall in the latter category. If you have a pile of chips, some cheese and chili, instructions would seem superfluous. Yet nachos are more involved than you might think.

Chris Shepherd, king of the gold standard nachos.

Photographer: Julie Soefer

Chris Shepherd, the James Beard-Award-winning chef at Underbelly and the just-opened meat-centric One Fifth Steak in Houston, has strong feelings about nachos. He considers the extravagant version he makes at his vast beer bar Hay Merchant to be the gold standard of the dish; he serves them late night, after 11 p.m., when they’re a bestseller. “A small plate of nachos is BS,” opines Shepherd, who also isn’t a fan of the overly wrought kind, where each chip has arranged toppings. “I like piles of stuff.”

 The Hay Merchant nachos are a thing of beauty, with a well-seasoned, chili-spiced ground beef mix, melted cheese and cheese sauce (not the jarred kind; this one is made with two cheeses and spiked with Asian chile sauce), and homemade, quick-pickled jalapeños and hominy. Shepherd uses shredded cabbage instead of romaine lettuce, which he avoids because it gets soggy. And he doesn’t add beans because he feels they don’t add much to the party. But he won’t be mad if you want to sprinkle them in.   

Shepherd has five rules for the perfect nachos. In advance of Super Bowl Ll, that’s being played in his home town of Houston, he wanted to share them with us.

Respect the chip. No one wants soggy nachos.
Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

1. Chips Are All Important. “Make sure your chips are thick and sturdy. If you get only one takeaway from this recipe, it’s thick chips. And they should be a certain shape. Are rounds good? No, I don’t think so, you want the corner texture; it’s a little crispier. And homemade are too greasy; don’t waste your time trying to make your own chips.” Testing tip: Not all thick chips are created equal. Make sure yours are sturdy and won't melt when sauce hits them. If you're serious about your nachos, it's worth doing a test with a few chips and salsa to make sure they'll hold up.

 2. Go for Double Cheese. “If you’re only going to do one cheese, go with shredded Colby or Cheddar. Flavor and texture-wise it’s a better payoff, the way the cheese clings to the chip. But if you can do both cheese sauce and shredded cheese, you’ll be happier. You’re basically ensuring a jackpot with every chip.” 

Nacho Rules: It's all about the layering.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

3. Layering, Layering, Layering. “The worst mistake you can make with nachos is to pour everything over the top. A high-rising pile of nachos is a beautiful thing. Respect the bottom layers; you don’t want those chips to be naked. Construct your nachos: bottom layer, middle layer, top layer.” Testing tip: This doesn't mean a nacho mountain—the toppings inside won't melt. Use a large pan and spread the chips out. And then, of course, top them well.

4. Pickled Hominy Is Your Secret Weapon. “Listen to me: I know pickled hominy might sound intimidating. All you have to do is buy a can of hominy at the store, open it, drain it, and pour a little of the warm pickling liquid on top. And bang, you’ve got acidity and the texture, that little crunchy kernel full of bright acidity. You have your nachos, covered in heavy meat and cheese, and all of a sudden you get a bite of hominy, and ‘Doop!’ Some people think that comes from a tomato, but hominy brings it to another level entirely.”

5. Texture is Key. “This recipe is especially constructed to deliver texture to the happy diner. Thick chips; chewy pickled hominy; crisp cabbage, and so on. In my opinion there is nothing worse than a soggy pile of chips. Do not let this happen to you. Please.” 

Essential Hay Merchant Nachos

Serves 8–12

Chef Shepherd's Essential Nachos, loaded with chili-spiced meat and cheese.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

Nacho Meat
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 lb. ground beef
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. chili powder
½ tbsp. onion powder (optional)
Salt

 

Nacho Fixings
Two 16-ounce bags of thick, sturdy tortilla chips
1½ cups nacho meat
4 cups shredded or cubed colby Jack cheese
1 cup pickled jalapeños
1 cup shredded cabbage
1½ cups pico de gallo, for serving
1 cup sour cream, for serving
½ cup cilantro leaves, for serving

Make the Nacho Meat. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring, until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and cook for 1 minute. Season with salt to taste.

Assemble the Nachos. Preheat the oven to 350°. Cover a large, rimmed cookie sheet or baking pan with foil (optional). Arrange a layer of tortilla chips on the cookie sheet. Spread one-third of the nacho meat on the chips, followed by a third each of the cheese, jalapeños, and cabbage. Repeat the process two more times. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is melted throughout. Top with the remaining ingredients. Consume immediately. 

To take your nachos over the top, add cheese sauce.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

Deluxe Haymarket Nachos

Serves 10–16

Nacho Meat
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 lb. ground beef
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. chili powder
½ tbsp. onion powder (optional)
Salt

In a large sauté pan, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring, until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and cook for 1 minute. Season with salt to taste.

Homemade Pickled Jalapeños and Hominy
2 cups water
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup rice wine vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 cup sliced raw jalapeños (about 4 medium)
1 cup drained hominy

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients except the jalapeños and hominy and bring to a boil. Put the sliced jalapeños in one bowl and the hominy in another bowl. Divide the hot pickling liquid between the bowls. Let cool to room temperature.

 

The simple steps to cheese sauce, and nacho, happiness.

Photographer: Kate Krader/Bloomberg

Spicy Cheese Sauce
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
1 cup half and half
8 oz. grated sharp Cheddar
2 slices American cheese
2 tbsp. sambal oelek Asian chile sauce or Sriracha
Salt

Melt the butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Slowly stir in the flour and cook over moderate heat until the roux is smooth and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk and half and half. Cook, whisking occasionally to remove any lumps, until thickened and smooth, about 15 minutes. Slowly whisk in the grated sharp cheddar, a handful at a time. Add the American cheese, and let it melt into the sauce. Stir in the sambal. Season with salt.

Nacho Fixings
Two 16-ounce bags of thick, sturdy tortilla chips
1½ cups nacho meat (recipe above)
2 cups spicy cheese Sauce
3 cups shredded or cubed colby Jack cheese
1 cup homemade or storebought pickled jalapeños
1 cup homemade pickled hominy
1 cup shredded cabbage
1 cup pico de gallo, for serving
1 cup sour cream, for serving
½ cup cilantro leaves, for serving

Assemble the Nachos. Preheat the oven to 350°. Cover a large, rimmed cookie sheet or baking pan with foil (optional). Arrange a layer of tortilla chips on the cookie sheet. Spread one-third of the nacho meat on the chips, followed by a third each of the cheese sauce, Colby cheese, jalapeños, hominy and cabbage. Repeat the process two more times. Bake in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the cheese is melted. Top with the remaining ingredients. Consume immediately.

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