As the story goes, nachos were invented in a restaurant in Mexico in 1943, but only as a means of serving a group of (U.S.) Americans who crossed the border for a shopping excursion, and came to the restaurant just after it had closed. So are nachos Mexican food? The answer is…kind of. The reality is that they're far more popular in the United States, with a strong presence on bar menus across the country. But chips, cheese, and booze do go well together, especially when done right. So take some Mylanta and get ready for today's food fight: bar nachos.
We begin at South in Santa Monica for their Tex Mex style nachos. They are enormous, especially for an “appetizer,” and come with cheese sauce, melted cheese, pico de gallo, beans, sour cream, and a substantial helping of pickled jalapeños. We've also heard good things about their pulled pork, and decided to add it to the nachos as well.
The flavors, as happens with just about any bar nachos ever, tend to get muddled. It is, in the end, a plate of many ingredients, piled on top of each other. They do avoid the cardinal sin in nacho-making — naked chips — by layering their ingredients fairly well. The cheese sauce manages to drip through every crevice possible, until forming a soggy puddle at the bottom (though in fairness, some people love a soggy nacho puddle). The best part of the dish is actually the pork, which is tender and subtly smokey. Unfortunately, it doesn't come through much with everything else happening around it.
El Carmen on 3rd may technically be a restaurant, but it looks, feels, and acts like a bar. There are few tables, the bar itself is the central hub of the small, narrow space, and the drink menu is about five times longer than the food menu. It is also a remarkably dark, red-lit place, which explains the low-visibility in our photo. Theirs is a smaller plate of nachos, which is inevitable, but after just one bite it is clearly the winner. We ordered them with carne asada, and while the steak gets lost in an array of cheese, chips, sour cream, and guacamole, the flavors are brighter and cleaner here. Maybe they are a little closer to restaurant nachos than bar nachos — more toasted, more unified — but they're also better. And we'll take “better” every time.