In the beginning, there were nachos. Simple tortilla chips topped with cheese and jalapeno slices and meant to be consumed by Americans.
But Americans wanted more. So restaurants began piling on, just like the Texans' defense. Soon the humble nacho looked naked if it weren't covered with a layer of beans or chili and a garnish of olives and chopped onions.
In Houston, the nacho has morphed into much more. It's a canvas for the creative and a foundation for snack food enthusiasts. So what's out there? You might be surprised.
While not ubiquitous to the Tex-Mex menu, there's certainly a lot more seafood nachos out there than there was just five years ago.
At Beaver's, crispy won tons sub for tortilla chips on the Nacho Mamma's Oysters. There's a generous dollop of creamy guacamole topped with a cornmeal-crusted (perfectly) fried oyster and smokey habanero sauce that ranges from spicy to please-someone-put-out-this-fire (ah, the quirks that define our beloved Beaver's). It's a very satisfying bite of food. The oysters are $8 for a half dozen/$15 for a dozen. My earnest suggestion: Order a half dozen at a time, even if you know you want a dozen and it will cost more. The dish really loses some of its oomph as it cools.
It's the same formula for the Nacho Mama's Oysters: fried wontons, crispy Gulf oysters and a habanero salsa. That's no surprise, however, since Beaver's chef Johnathan Jones was the founding chef at Max's. At Max's the dish is $9 for a half dozen and $17 for 12.
There's a more is more attitude to the oyster nachos at Fish City Grill, a Texas-born chain that has five outlets here. Small round tortilla chips are topped with cornmeal-crusted oysters, a shot of chipotle tartar sauce and heaping mess of pico de gallo. Normally I hate tartar sauce, but this works. And while I think the fresh-tasting tomato mixture adds to the nacho, consider asking them to serve the pico on the side and add it per bite not per pound. The appetizer is served six to a plate for $6.99.
At the upscale El Tiempo, crab nachos are a longtime favorite. Unbelievably rich, the nachos are offered 10 for $12.99 or 14 for $16.99. Unless you've brought along an army, stick with 10. El Tiempo also does a shrimp version (10 for $13.99/ 14 for $16.99).
In more humble digs, Los Cucos Mexican Cafe has a platter of seafood nachos for $10.99 (a smaller version is $7.99). The crisp flour tortillas are topped with shrimp, crab meat and Monterey Jack cheese. There are colorful piles of guac, jalapenos, sour cream and diced tomato in the center of the plate for customizing your nachos. Seriously, I LOVE these nachos. Some chips come out a little blackened, but overall this is huge bang for the buck. Plan your visit for lunch when the magaritas are $1.59.
And now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous...
Italian nachos are more out there, as quirky as the places that serve them.
At Ciro's Italian Grill, the Italian nachos use a flatbread as the base, and the toppings. Dang. It's a whole left side of the menu approach: sauteed spinach, roasted garlic, roma tomatoes, kalamata olives, black beans and green onions. Oh, yea, some mozzarella. For $6.95, that's a mighty big plate of food.
One of my fave neighborhood eateries, Spaghetti Western, has a dish I'm sure was conceived by somebody who was stoned and ransacking the fridge. It's a mess. An amazing ooey, gooey mess that tastes soooooooo good. Wrong in all the right ways, the dish has as its base crispy won tons. Layered, and I means layered, is Alfredo sauce, ground sausage, mozzarella, tomatoes, black olives, green onions and -- wait for it -- BANANA PEPPERS. It sounds like a mess, but it's delicious, even if you're not high. And the banana peppers ... who knew? They work in some kinda weird pickled bite way. A whole order is $7.75, but a half order ($5.25) would feed four as an appetizer.
At Carino's Italian, the Kansas-based chain that has seven Houston-area locations, the Italian nachos are Italian nachos are built on crispy pasta chips that are topped with Italian sausage (or chicken), sweet peppers, tomatoes, jalapenos, Alfredo sauce and mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. You can get a mini order for $3.99 or shareable order for $7.99.
There are a couple of pubs turning out Irish nachos. In town, Kenneally's serves up its version of nachos, while at The Goose's Acre, the appetizer (7.95) features melted Irish cheddar, crispy bacon, scallions and chopped tomatoes atop fried potatoes. The dish accompanied by sour cream and pico. It's kind of potato skins meets Tex-Mex, but very good.
I went into The Flying Saucer thinking that this might be the worst idea for nachos ever. No! These were great. It was a really Texas traditionally treatment in that the nachos were individually topped, and not that crazy mess that Yankees (and movie theaters) call nachos. The tortilla chips are topped with a spicy bratwurst, onions that have been carmalized for extra sweetness and finely diced tomatoes and jalapenos. The dish is accompanied by a serviceable salsa and a very (very, very, very) tasty habanero sour cream. Cost is $7.59 and very shareable.
I'm in love with Olympia : The Grill at Pier 21, which transformed a counter-service Landry's overlooking the working-class Galveston port into a sleek, sophisticated restaurant space. The Greek nachos have become an underground hit. The base is toasted pita chips. And those are topped with lamb gyro meat, creamy tzatziki sauce, diced tomato, onion and mozzarella. That's the good news. Yummy, yummy Greek goodness. Bad news: The $5 dish is only available 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays at happy hour.