Who doesn’t love nachos? No matter what you like or dislike, there’s a way to make nachos that’s perfect for you. Leave off the cheese or drown the entire plate in it, spice it up with chilies, go heavy on the meat or completely vegetarian, there’s not a single person on the planet who can say they don’t like nachos. But how much do you really know about where this amazing idea came from, and how it turned into what might be the perfect dish?
We know exactly who invented them
It’s tough to imagine a world where there’s no nachos on the menu, but they’re a surprisingly recent addition to Tex-Mex cuisine. According to nacho lore, they were created quite by accident during World War II. Soldiers and their wives would often make the trek from Eagle Pass, Texas and Fort Duncan to Mexico’s Piedras Negras and its Victory Club. One night, a man named Ignacio Anaya took on the task of feeding the hungry guests. Closing time was approaching, and he needed something fast. He found some fried tortilla strips, added some toppings, and served it up. When they asked what this delicious dish was called, he quickly made up a name based on his own moniker. Everyone called him Nacho — short for Ignacio — so the dish became Nacho’s Especiales. Today, we just call them nachos.
Someone else made them popular in LA
Nachos weren’t an immediate hit, and their first big break came thanks to a waitress named Carmen Rocha. Rocha worked at LA’s El Cholo restaurant. She was such a fixture she was featured on their postcards and, when she passed away in 2008, regular customer (and actor) Jack Nicholson issued a statement of condolence to the family of the woman who not only changed how we eat, but who was remembered as "[…] a very loving person".
According to the LA Times, nachos didn’t start out on the menu. Instead, it was a specialty of Rocha’s — she had grown up in San Antonio making the dish. After she started making it for some of her customers, it wasn’t long before word got out about this amazing secret menu item. They got so popular they became an official part of the restaurant’s offerings.
Sports made them popular nationwide
Spreading the popularity of nachos truly was a team effort, and the reason you can find nachos at every single US sporting event is because of Frank Liberto. According to The Smithsonian, nachos were already popular in Texas, but it wasn’t until 1976 that he started serving them up at a baseball game. It wasn’t easy, either, and it took a top-secret invention to make nachos portable: a pumpable cheese product. Liberto created the cheddar-based cheese sauce that didn’t need to be refrigerated and was, therefore, the perfect addition to any stadium snack. The formula for his cheese was so secret, in fact, that one man was arrested in 1983 for trying to buy Liberto’s trade secrets.
There are two official days for nachos
As if you needed an excuse to whip up a tray of nachos, there are two official days dedicated to celebrating this made-for-sharing platter. After Ignacio Anaya’s death in 1975, October 21 was designated International Day of the Nacho. That’s the perfect opportunity to whip up something with an international flair.
But don’t forget about November 6 — that’s National Nachos Day. That’s when you’re going to want a version piled high with flavors that are uniquely American, so how about these Buffalo chicken nachos from Yellow Bliss Road?
Tortilla chips were an accidental invention
Whether you’re the type that considers tortilla chips a legitimate snack on their own or just a vehicle for transporting the toppings, there’s no denying that without them, there’s no such thing as modern nachos. Tortilla chips as we know and love them were a completely accidental invention and — just like Velveeta — actually came about because an enterprising business was looking for a way to use their scrap materials.
It started in the 1940s, when the El Zarape Tortilla Factory automated their manufacturing processes. Machines could make tortillas at a record pace, but they didn’t always come out perfect. The misshapen tortillas and extra pieces were thrown away at first, but when the company president decided to take some of the throw-away tortillas and fry them up for a special treat at a party she was throwing, the response she got made it clear she’d stumbled on something amazing. They started selling the "chips" at their LA deli, and a snack food was born.
Salsa dates back to the Aztecs
Tortilla chips were a stroke of 20th century genius, but salsa has been around for a surprisingly long time. According to The Nibble, salsa (which is just a Spanish word meaning "sauce"), was given its moniker by Spanish conquistadors who were introduced to the idea when they crossed the ocean to the New World in the 16th century.
The idea of chopping up tomatoes and chili peppers into a condiment dates back even farther than that, and while we don’t know a precise date, we do know the Aztecs were making batches of salsa that included things like beans and squash seeds. Salsa gets a mention in some of the earliest — and most important — works that document the everyday life of the Aztecs, so when you reach for salsa instead of ketchup, you’re enjoying a centuries-old condiment that impressed even the most seasoned of European explorers!
You can make Anaya’s original nachos, and they’re nothing like modern ones
There’s literally no end to your options when it comes to getting creative with nachos, but when Nacho Anaya served up that first dish he called Nachos Especiales, it looked a lot different than the nachos you’re familiar with. All of those extra toppings are a more modern take on the idea, and if you’re looking for something 100 percent authentic, you might be surprised at just how simple it is.
According to Kitchen Project, making a batch of Anaya’s original nachos is incredibly easy — that is, after all, why he decided to do it in the first place! Cut some corn tortillas into wedges of four, then fry them up until they turn into crispy chips. Pile them on a baking sheet, add a generous helping of cheddar cheese, and as many jalapeno pepper slices as you can stand. Bake until the cheese bubbles, and you’re done — you have an authentic replica of the dish that started it all, and it’s still a great appetizer with an even better story!
There’s been serious competition to build the biggest nacho dish
Next time you feel a little guilty over piling your plate high with nachos and all kinds of good toppings, just remember you’re not even coming close to serving up a record-breaking dish.
In 2011, Grub Street reported on the 99 restaurant’s record-setting attempt at building a 3,999-pound plate of nachos. The stunt was partially to hype the addition of nachos to their menu, partially to snag a world record, and partially to raise money for a local Boys & Girls Club. That record was short-lived, and in 2012 the University of Kansas took it away with an 80-foot-long plate of nachos weighing almost 5,000 pounds (via Delish). And in 2017, SFist reported on another record-breaking attempt, this one assembled by SoMa StrEat Food Park and weighing in at 5,022 pounds. The stunt wasn’t just a bid for a world record, but it was also to raise awareness of the possibility of using insects as food. It was assembled not with traditional tortilla chips but with 2,600 pounds of Chirp Chips, made from crickets. An idea for your next nacho night?
Velveeta made chile con queso famous
It might seem impossible to imagine dipping tortilla chips into a chile con queso made with something other than Velveeta, but this super-simple, super-easy nacho dish wasn’t, in fact, originally made with Velveeta. According to Houston Press, we can thank the Felix Mexican Restaurant for coming up with the idea of chile con queso. The restaurant, which opened in 1926, used a very old-school recipe for their cheese dip that used flour, tomatoes, and paprika to create a bechamel base, and then added in cheese and some cayenne to finish off the dip. It’s described as something close in texture to gravy and it had a tendency to separate, but it likely wasn’t on the plate long enough to get too questionable in texture. While it was a Felix favorite, it was Velveeta that made the idea famous.
According to Serious Eats, official recipes for chile con queso didn’t start showing up until 1949, and in the 1950s, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife turned what had been a regional favorite into a national one with their even simpler recipe: Take some Velveeta and a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes, heat, mix, and dip!
Nacho cheese has killed at least one person
In 2017, a single bag of nacho cheese was found to be the culprit in an outbreak of botulism that hospitalized nine people and killed one. According the The Seattle Times, the bag in question was served to customers at a gas station outside Sacramento, California, and those who chose that afternoon to have some nachos were sick the next day. Symptoms of the potentially fatal disease include fatigue and weakness escalating to gastrointestinal distress and respiratory failure, and fortunately, it’s rare. Other bags of the same cheese were tested, but it was only that single bag that was found to be contaminated.
The Walnut Grove outbreak was severe, and 37-year-old Martin Galindo-Larios, Jr., died after eating some of the cheese. A 16-year-old high school student was said to be in critical condition, and he — and others — who fell ill were said to be facing a recovery that would last for weeks.
Nacho cheese has been used to smuggle drugs
You can probably imagine all the nachos you could make with huge cans of nacho cheese, but according to NPR, one drug trafficker thought of something different when he looked at the cans. The story broke in 2011, after US Customs and Border Protection seized seven pounds of methamphetamine hidden inside cans containing both nacho cheese sauce and jalapenos. The cheese didn’t hide the meth from X-rays, though, and officials seized a stash worth somewhere around $140,000.
That wasn’t the only instance would-be smugglers have been caught trying to get drugs through customs in cheese and jalapenos, either. According to officials, cheese, jalapenos, and other foodstuffs are often chosen as the transport materials to get drugs across the US-Mexican border because of the (mistaken) belief that the smell will throw dogs off the scent of the drugs. It won’t, it’s just a waste of sweet, sweet, nacho cheese.
No one owns the nacho
Ignacio Anaya not only invented the nacho, but he also opened his own restaurant, aptly named Nacho’s Restaurant. But Anaya was never able to really, truly reap any rewards from his now-famous creation. According to the San Antonio Express-News, it wasn’t until 1960 that his son offered to help him try to claim his rightful place as the inventor — and owner — of nachos.
By the time the Anaya family realized just how popular their creation was, 17 years had passed since Nacho had first served up his nachos. Legal counsel told them the idea was officially in public domain, and while that means anyone can whip up their own version of nachos without stepping on anyone’s toes, it’s also meant Anaya’s name has largely been forgotten. His son went on to judge an annual nacho competition, though, and he says his favorite kind of nachos are those simple ones his father served up originally.
There are plenty of ways to make healthy nachos
Let’s face it: nachos are something of a guilty pleasure. There’s no way all that cheese is possibly good for you, but sometimes, you just need a little indulgence. If you’re the type that gets the nacho craving a lot, we have some great news for you. You can make nachos so healthy (and still tasty) you can satisfy your craving without the guilt.
Don’t believe it? Take a look at these sweet potato nachos from Slim Sanity. You’ll make your own healthy chips from sweet potatoes, then load up with all kinds of good things like onion, olives, tomatoes, and black beans. You can also do the same thing with zucchini chips, like they do over at Two Peas & Their Pod.
If the tortilla chips are a must, check out this idea from A Healthy Life for Me. Swap ground beef for chicken, and pile on amazing toppings like red onion, chilis, cilantro, and corn. You won’t even miss the cheese… that much.
Everything you need to know about making nachos
If you’re still stuck in the rut of making the same old nacho recipe all the time, stop! We have everything you need to get out of that rut and put something so different and so unique on the table, you might never go back to your old ways again. Check out this post for some amazing nacho recipes you’re going to have to try sooner than later, and when you’re done, you’re going to have to finish everything off with these incredible dessert nachos.
And, even if you make nachos on a regular basis, you’re going to want to check out our tips for making the perfect nachos. It’ll make your prep work and your clean-up easier as well as making your nachos better, and who doesn’t want that?