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The 21 Best Nachos in America

Thrillist logo Thrillist 11/19/2018 Thrillist Food

It's hard to find a bad plate of nachos, but the 21 creations here represent the best of the best. These are the best nachos in America.

a plate of food on a table © Courtesy of Half Acre Brewing Ever since culinary pioneer Guy Fieri invented them in Flavortown back in 1997 (or was it Ignacio Anaya in Piedras Negras in 1943?), nachos have become a staple of American restaurants, breweries, tailgates, and convenience stores. They are the epitome of Tex-Mex cuisine, perfectly combining the Mexican tradition of complex and layered flavors with the American tradition of piling a bunch of stuff on crunchy fried things.

Over the course of their relatively short but explosive lifespan, nachos have evolved from simple leftover tortillas covered in cheese and peppers to their own art form. It's hard to find a bad plate of nachos, but the 21 creations here represent the best of the best, from old-school takes on the relatively new tradition to piles of deliciousness that reimagine what a nacho can be. These are the best nachos in America.

a plate of food on a table © L: Alkaline; R: American Ice Cream Co.

Alkaline

Norfolk, Virginia

Alkaline was featured on the Guy Fieri’s TV show for ramen and fish sauce wings, but these nachos are even better. Chef Kevin Ordonez marries the earthiness and acidity of an old-school Filipino comfort food – a dinuguan pork stew cooked in blood, vinegar and spice – with a world of cheese and Thai bird pepper. It is like Conan the Barbarian’s idea of a great chili cheese. It is viscerally, deeply satisfying over house-fried tortilla chips that somehow never get soggy. There will -- no, there must -- be blood.

American Ice Co.

Washington, DC

American Ice Co. specializes in BBQ, whiskey, and beer served up in a rustic, laid-back neighborhood bar. So, yeah, don't go in expecting Tutti Frutti. But do go in expecting to be gobsmacked by the signature "swatchos," a pile of tortillas swimming in liquid queso blanco, pickled jalapenos, and a heap of signature pulled pork. Other folks swear by the joint's veggie nachos, but for carnivores, there's no substitute. You won't be licking dairy out of a cone, but if you can resist licking that spicy white cheese off the plate at the end of the night -- especially after a few drinks -- you're a better adult than we are.

a plate of food on a table © L: Brewery Vivant; R: Central BBQ

Brewery Vivant

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Purists might turn their noses up, but the duck nachos at Brewery Vivant -- one of the best breweries in one of America's best beer cities -- have to be eaten to be believed. Nothing here is expected. Brie cream, tomato concasse (a fancy word for ground tomatoes), duck confit, caramelized onions, and duck cracklin' with citrus all sit on top of perfectly cooked tortilla chips, while most newcomers jaws sit uncomfortably on the table, having dropped in disbelief. Try any of the beers on tap, and you'll be in nacho heaven, which is perfect, considering this place is in a converted funeral chapel.

Central BBQ

Memphis, Tennessee

Fun fact: AutoZone Park, home to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, is the only pro MLB stadium in the country where hot dogs aren't the top  selling concession. It's BBQ nachos. In Memphis, barbecue is gospel, and BBQ nachos are the greatest thing to come out of the Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll since, well, rock ‘n roll. There’s a few different purveyors out there (we see you Rendezvous), but for our money, Central BBQ, a small local chain with relaxed counter-serve outposts scattered around the city, does it best: bite-sized hunks of slow-smoked pork, straight off the pit and tender as a country ballad, resting atop a raft of fresh, crunchy tortilla chips afloat in a sea of signature tomato-based sauce, fiery jalapenos, thinly shredded cheese, and a ladleful of creamy cheese sauce (two types of cheese!). The coup de gras? A sprinkling of the joint’s world-famous BBQ Shake, a salty, savory seasoning with just a peppery kick that makes everything, literally everything, taste just that much better.

Cecilia's Cafe

Albuquerque, New Mexico

A master-class in the kind of Tex-Mex cuisine the ABQ is beloved for, these New Mexican nachos are bursting with guac, beans, cheese, and a choice between flavorful ground beef (zzzz… but also mmmmm), chicken (!!!!), or saucy, spicy carne adovada (BINGO!) all on crispy tostadas. After you scarf those down, you might as well go for some more traditional NM fare, so order their famous chicharones, which are hunks of stewed pork tucked into a warm tortilla with cheese and green chile sauce. In a world (and list) of crazy twists on nachos, sometimes you just need the perfect old-school platter. Look no further.

a pizza sitting on top of a plate of food © L: El Cholo; R: El Patron Cafe

El Cholo Cafe

Los Angeles, California

You could say that chainlet El Cholo’s nachos are the best in LA simply because they are the oldest in LA: the late Carmen Rocha, a former waitress at El Cholo, was allegedly the first person to throw melted cheese and jalapeños on tortilla chips in Los Angeles after moving there from San Antonio in 1959. But when it comes down to the bite-for-bite experience, it doesn’t really even matter if they were first or not. All that matters is the way the cheese melts and stretches over the crispy tortilla chips, and how the acidity of the pickled jalapeños cuts right through it all. There’s nothing else to say. They’re perfect.

El Patron Cafe

Las Cruces, New Mexico

This family-owned Southern New Mexico joint is famous for its slow-cooked brisket, so you've pretty much gotta get it on top of their also-legendary nachos for a combination that's out-of-this-world awesome. Locals swear by the smoky, flavor-packed meat when it's paired with refried beans, tomatoes, guacamole, and salsa on top of house-made tortillas, so you should, too. Because, damn, the locals are absolutely right. How El Patron manages to pile a half a cow's worth of brisket onto these suckers without shattering the chips is a marvel of modern culinary engineering.

Expatriate

Portland, Oregon

The Expatriate Nacho, served at its namesake cocktail hall only before 6 pm and after 10 pm, are like a Trans-Pacific pact devoted to elegance. On a bed of delicate fried wontons, James Beard award-winning chef Naomi Pomeroy pikes lemongrass beef numbed up with sichuan peppercorns, salsa made with kaffir limes, delicately wilted cilantro, and something that doesn’t even exist: Thai chili cheese sauce, which is cross-hatched with an equal dose of crema. The plate is is both daringly spicy and light enough to be ethereal – a nacho-cheese pagoda in heaven.

a box filled with different types of food on a table © L: Half Acre Brewing; R: Gueros

Gueros

Brooklyn, New York

Tucked away off Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, this tiny, unassuming sidewalk spot has long been known for their refreshingly tart margaritas, made with real fruit juice and served in massive plastic cups. But, truth be told, the real champ here is the nachos. It begins with a solid foundation of housemade chips, hot and blistery and clearly fresh from the fryer, piled high on a paper boat big enough to cross the Gowanus Canal (please don’t try this). Then you’re hit with the meat. Now if you order online, you’re getting two options: steak or chicken. What you actually want to do, though, is call them up old-school or get your nacho-loving butt to the shop and ask for either beef brisket (the rich tenderness!) or the fried chicken (the buttery crispiness!). On top of that goes a hearty dollop of sour cream, fragrant garden-fresh pico, half an uncut avocado, and finally, -- this is what separates the burritos from the taquitos -- the queso. Steamy and velvety, it’s made with some magical mystery spice combo that makes you want to drink it straight from the ladle. You’re going to need an extra margarita to wash all that business down.

Half Acre Brewing

Chicago, Illinois

Chicagoans first developed a love for Half Acre thanks to their beer, but when the brewery started serving food a few years back, their revelatory nachos further cemented the bond. Served on a sheet pan, the sturdy chips come topped with chorizo and pickled veggies (onions, carrots, jalapenos), but the proverbial rug that ties the room together is the "science cheese," a homemade cheese sauce with a highly secret scientific ingredient (hint: sodium citrate) that takes real cheese and creates that oh-so-pleasing cheese sauce texture. Think about ballpark nacho cheese sauce, and then think about something that tastes a thousand times better than that. Now stop thinking and order another beer.

Latin House Grill

Miami, Florida

It's not all health food and bangers featuring Pitbull in Miami, as proven by the ultra-fresh yet deceptively decadent offerings at this Latin-fusion spot, which does wonderful things with pig wings (think chicken wings, but pork) and crab sliders. But Monsta's Sneaky Nachos are a standout among a menu of standouts. The house-fried chips are piled high on an oblong platter, kissed with homemade nacho cheese,then loaded with avo-lime, crema, and pico. The protein is up to you, and while we'd never dismiss the idea of fried chicken nachos, the presence of Cuban-style vaca frita is hard to pass up. Or go with carnitas paired with shrimp. If pigs have wings on this menu, they should also get a chance to swim with some seafood.

a box filled with different types of food on a table © L: Everybody's Brewing; R: Four Peaks Brewing

Everybody's Brewing

White Salmon, Washington

Tucked away on a scenic highway overlooking the majestic Columbia River Gorge (right on the Lewis & Clark trail), Everybody's is one of Washington's low-key best breweries. And it's also one of those breweries that bucks the misconception that breweries all have the same food: Like their beer, the food takes the familiar and twists it slightly. Case in point, the best-in-show Pork & Pepper nachos, a mountain of chips piled with pulled pork, Cheddar, Jack, onions, spicy black beans, salsa, and chipotle crema that, had they existed back in the day, would have likely prevented Lewis & Clark from tucking tail and going back east when it started raining in the Pacific Northwest.

Fahrenheit

Charlotte, North Carolina

Honestly, there was a long debate on whether to include potato chip-based nachos at all. And that was also a debate about whether to call them "Irish nachos" or "Polish nachos." Which in turn became a debate about whether of those terms are offensive. Look, we overthink things. It's been a long week. Then we got a bite of chef Rocco Whalen's hot, pimento cheese fondue-covered, bacon-stacked, house-made chips, and suddenly all our qualms went out the door. He calls them "Charlotte nachos." They count. Because they're incredible. Now, let us move on to the Bruce Lee vs. Mike Tyson debate.

Four Peaks Brewing

Tempe, Arizona

Taken at their most basic, the nachos at one of Arizona's best breweries are a wonder to behold. The Peaks Nachos are gluten-free, vegetarian, and piled with black bean dip, olives, pickled jalapenos, sour cream, tomatoes, and salsa. They're a delicious canvas, one made more exemplary with the addition of blackened chicken or carne adovada or, given you're in Arizona, green chile pork. Don't worry. They'll direct you to the best beer to pair with your chosen protein. That's just how they roll.

a plate of food on a table © L: Molina's Cantina; R: Nacho Daddy

Molina's Cantina

Houston, Texas

Molina's has scored a hat trick in the hearts of Houston's Tex-Mex-loving hearts, with our local edition naming it among the city's best purveyors of tacos, nachos, and overall Tex-Mex cuisine. So what makes its nachos stand out in such a crowded field? Well, take your pick. There are two standouts here, and no wrong answers. The fajitas nachos basically replicate a sizzling fajita platter with chips and a greatly reduced chance of scalding your hand on a skillet, but the Nancy Ames Nachos -- named for the folk songstress -- are the real draw, a pile of chips underneath spicy beef, beans, guacamole, cheese, diced tomatoes, and jalapeño-loaded chips. Get a side of the legendary Jose dip and seal your food-comatose fate.

Nacho Daddy

Las Vegas, Nevada

Fun fact: "Nacho Daddy" was the working title for Michael Jackson's "BIllie Jean," but Quincy Jones decided it wasn't very radio family. (Editor's note: Citation needed). But back to chips. Nacho Daddy has built a mini empire in Sin City based solely on the strength of its nachos, loading its signature tri-colored chips with everything from traditional toppings to BBQ chicken. You can play it safe here and emerge satisfied that you've had some of the best nachos in the nation. But don't do that. Think outside the box. Grab the lobster & crab nachos hit with buttery crustaceans, white queso, and mango pico. Or a peanut/sesame-smacked Thai chicken platter. Or filet mignon. You're in Vegas, at a nacho place. You should really be taking chances. This gives you a way to do that without taking out another mortgage.

Los Chingones

Denver, Colorado

Translated roughly as "the badasses," graffiti-covered bi-level modern taqueria Los Chingones isn't messing around with its title. This is a place once courted death by mixing Mexican coke with tequila and Pop Rocks, after all. And its nachos are not to be trifled with. They're called Pigs Nachos for a good reason: the pork-on-pork explosion includes belly, housemade chorizo, and chicharones, which commingle on chips along with pinto puree, pickled peppers and onions, avocado, and three types of cheese (queso sauce, a house chingon cheese, and queso fresco).  One bite, and the restaurant name suddenly seems like an understatement.

a pizza sitting on top of a table © L: Party Fowl; R: Slab BBQ

Party Fowl

Nashville, Tennessee

Continuing the fine tradition of highly specialized restaurant with punny names started in the previous entry, Party Fowl preaches the gospel of hot chicken and cold beer, and it's the kind of place that instantly converts non-believers. Said bright-red chicken can be served with its traditional white-bread-and-pickles accoutrements, in sandwiches (po' boys, Cubans), in tacos, or atop poutine. And, of course, on a big-ass pile of nachos. But here's the thing: Hot chicken is overpowering, so for the nachos to really stand out, they need a little something extra. And what really makes these suckers shine is the fact that the chips are fried in bacon fat before getting loaded with neon chicken, white beans, various sauces, and more. Take the hot chicken away, and you've got a great plate of nachos. Add it and you have a legendary one.

Slab BBQ

Austin, Texas

In the land where Tex meets Mex, there are few things more beloved than BBQ and queso. And while you can get a solid plate of BBQ nachos in many a Texas roadhouse, Slab's version reigns supreme. The toughest choice you have to make here is which meat to pile on those tortillas (pro tip: double down and get brisket and pulled pork). After that, they'll make it rain queso and red sauce, then make it, um, hail jalapenos, pickles, and onions. The only thing that could make this more Texas is if it was served in one of John Wayne's old boots.

Taco Surf

San Diego, California

This surfboard-covered Cali spot lets you choose your own cheese-smothered adventure (it's going to end well no matter what) with their build-your-own option. Starting off with chips and melted cheddar, you can add up to four toppings ranging from guac, grilled onions & peppers, and salsa fresca to hash browns, beans, and sauteed mushrooms & jalapeños. If you're feeling lazy or carnivorous, they also do bean & cheese-smothered carne asada chips. Either way, you should probably get a fish taco or six. This is San Diego, after all.

Velvet Cantina

San Francisco, California

Velvet Cantina in SF layers their house-made tortillas with house-made chile con queso, black beans, sour cream, and guacamole, which alone is amazing. But add spicy chorizo into the mix and you've got a plate that truly can't be beat by any other Mission Mexican joint. And for those looking for a nacho nightcap, they also offer s'mores nachos for dessert -- chock-full of cinnamon, sugar, Mexican chocolate, crushed graham crackers, and molten marshmallow. Finally, there's a way to eat nachos for every meal.

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