Nachos are party food, sporting event food, late-night soak-up-the-booze food or — conversely — kid food. Nachos are not aspirational food. At its most basic, this is a platter of chips covered with a neon foodstuff called cheese. Even when elevated, it isn't pretending to be much more. But it does hit all the points of salty-sweet-crunchy-tangy-spicy joy, and for that it is a huge favorite — whether you admit to loving this dish or keep it secret.
As a dish, it was invented at The Victory Club in the early 1940's, by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya in Coahuila, Mexico. It became a staple of cantinas and happy hour menus some time after that.
But a truly good serving of nachos is going to have more than just chips and cheese. It should have flavor, heft, variety, quality ingredients and some thought behind it. Ideally, the toppings are layered in, as opposed to just being tossed on top.
Sure, you can get your fill at El Torito Grill or (we assume) Chili's, but this list isn't about those places. This list is of spots serving up something bigger, bolder and better. And while we not-so-secretly think the number one spot should have gone to the canned cheese and stale chips being passed off as nachos at Dodger Stadium — because drinking a cold beer and watching our team play on a sunny day is as close as many Angelenos get to nirvana — we set that aside and came up with 10 other options for your approval. Turn the page.
Plancha nachos are a bit of an oxymoron, as they border on fresh and healthy. Don't get us wrong, they're still high-calorie, but the chips are light and the overall portion is a completely reasonable size for two people. Refried beans, chopped tomato, ground beef (we didn't care for the chicken) and lots of pickled jalapeños make it a sloppy but happy dish. 8250 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; 323-951-9911.
Loteria, the beloved local mini-chain, serves nachos in two sizes — both quite large — and can be topped with chicken or beef for an additional few dollars. Both are good choices, but we tend to stick with the large chunks of beef that are generously layered throughout the plate. The chips are airy, covered with Jack cheese and topped with house-made tomatillo salsa and salsa fresca. Paired with one of the exemplary cocktails, this is a quality dish from top to bottom. 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-465-2500.
Doomie's is hard to explain: It's a goth-Asian-all-American-vegan restaurant that kindly accommodates every conceivable neurotic food restriction. As far as we can tell, everyone who likes hearty food is welcome. And they make a quality plate of dairy and meat free nachos. Are there too many canned olives? Yes. Is it still a huge dish of pseudo-healthy, cruelty-free nachos that could fool anyone in to thinking that is actually cheese and meat? Yes. The ground meat is highly spiced faux sausage and the crème is of the cashew variety. Considering that there are more than a few vegan and raw nachos on menus all over L.A. to choose from, we were incredibly impressed with this version. Serves four. 1253 Vine Street, Los Angeles; 714-883-7657.
Turn the page for picks 7 through 5…
7. Upper West:
Upper West pushes the envelope with their happy hour-only nachito. The “little nachos” are individual, bite-sized corn chips with a smear of black beans, a hefty scoop of tender lamb, some goat cheese and a lightly pickled jalapeño slice. The lamb/cheese combo brings a mouthful of heady funk that the flaming hot and puckery jalapeño balances out. Easy to share because of the way they are structured. For sure this dish matches the swanky atmosphere, but we still wished for a slightly less civilized pile. 3321 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-586-1111.
6. Casa Vega:
Valley stalwart Casa Vega is a very dark and festive restaurant. They've been serving up their flawless nachos to happy families and margarita lovers since about the dawn of time. They offer a classic chip-bean-meat-cheese colossus that no one can turn away from. 13301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-788-4868.
When it comes to having a sudden craving for nachos, a few pertinent questions should be addressed. How drunk are you? How drunk were you last night? Are you okay to drive? Do you think eating this carb/fat/protein/salt combo is going to have a positive effect on your pending or current hangover? If melted cheese bathing salty chips, a few handfuls of chopped, raw onion, chicken, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole sounds like your salvation — and you are possibly a Trojan or just wandering around USC — Chano's Drive-Inn is the answer to your needs. 3850 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles; 213-748-0397.
Keep reading for number 4 on …
4. El Cholo:
Once upon a time (in the 1950's) a woman named Carmen moved to L.A. from Texas. With her, she brought nachos, a dish that had been invented in her border town. For that contribution to our local landscape, El Cholo still proudly serves Carmen's Original Nachos, a large platter of chips hiding under a pool of cheddar and Jack cheese. The dish is also given free at their “Nacho Table,” which is deemed the loudest table in the house. They also have the Sonora-style, which come with beans, cheese, salsa, jalapeños and guacamole. Both versions are enhanced by the slightly sweet, very crispy chips that they fry up in-house.1121 South Western Ave., Los Angeles; 323-734-2773.
Sky's Gourmet Tacos is a charming little spot on Pico Blvd. with a loyal local following. The majority of orders placed are rightfully for the tacos, but you would be remiss to skip their nachos. The selection includes shrimp, lobster, beef, pork, mahi mahi, tilapia and salmon. While we normally shy away from seafood and melted cheese, what they're doing somehow negates our common sense and really works. We particularly recommend the sweet lobster. Just keep in mind, this is a garnish, not the centerpiece, so there isn't a lot. The salsa is freshly made, as is the guacamole. They offer black or pinto beans and the whole thing is both beautiful and easy to devour. 5408 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles; 323-932-6253.
Walk into Panchos during the lunch rush and you'll be met with a cacophony of a blaring television, orders being sung out, local businesspeople taking a break from their hectic day and a lot of teenagers enjoying their few free minutes between classes. Everyone present is digging in to this Westside institution's well-seasoned fare. Everybody — and you, too — should be eating the nachos. What we particularly swoon over is the rich mole with which that they drench the plate. No chip is left completely dry but most still retain that essential crunch. There'ss a salsa bar available, allowing you to amp up the heat as needed. 2920 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-452-2970.
And for our top pick…
Tinga makes and serves new-wave versions of old-school Mexican fare in an amped up Mid-City space that could double as your hipster uncle's rec-room. Within those walls they use the highest quality — humanely sourced, organic when possible — ingredients to create visually stunning food. For that, we applaud them. The nachos come in three varieties: the spicy cochinita pibil, moist chicken tinga, and the unexpected flavor bomb that is black bean with goat cheese. Each version is its own unique medley of ingredients. We can't even pick which is the best of the three, because they're all a balance of both the expected traditional and the high stakes contemporary. Therefore the formidable triumvirate takes the win for best nachos in Los Angeles. 142 N. La Brea Ave. Los Angeles; 323-954-9566.
Other nacho-options we like: Red Rock, Hot's Cantina, Tito's Tacos, Barney's Beanery, Boardners, Rincon Taurino and El Carmen.
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