In the 1940s, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya was working at Club Victoria in the border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, when a group from the neighboring Texas town of Eagle Pass came in looking for something to eat. As the restaurant’s maître d, Anaya's job was normally limited to attending to guests, but on this particular occasion, the cook was nowhere to be found.
Instead of turning the customers away, Anaya ducked into the kitchen to whip up a quick dish using the few ingredients he could find. The resulting plate of tortilla chips topped with grated cheese and sliced jalapeños was a hit. It needed a name, and Nachos Especiales—an homage to its creator—stuck. Or at least the first half of it did.
The story of nachos doesn’t start and end with a resourceful restaurant employee assembling a few basic components. From the chips, to the toppings, to the molten yellow cheese that’s become synonymous with the dish, the history of nachos can tell us a lot more than their simple ingredients list might suggest.
From Maize to Tortilla to Chip
Corn, or maize, was first domesticated by the Indigenous people living in what is now central Mexico around 7000 BCE. Maize would become a vital part of the Aztec and Maya diets. But the first maize crops didn’t produce the sweet, golden kernels that are sold by the can in supermarkets today. Early corn grew on tiny cobs and was trapped in tough casings that made it hard to eat.
To turn maize into something more palatable, Mesoamericans developed a process called nixtamalization, probably around 1500 BCE. Nixtamalization involves drying corn kernels and then soaking them in warm water mixed with an alkali, like ash or slaked lime. The high-pH solution is caustic, and it partially breaks down the tough cell walls of the corn, making it easier to chew and digest.
Nixtamalized maize has the added bonus of being more nutritious. Corn is high in niacin, or vitamin B3, but it’s bound to other chemicals in the raw version of the grain. When the bound form of niacin passes through the digestive tract, the small intestine can't absorb it, so it passes through the body without giving us any nutritional benefits. Many people who relied on unprocessed maize as a primary food source suffered from niacin deficiency, which caused malnutrition and a disease called pellagra, which is characterized by symptoms like sores on the skin, diarrhea, and delusions. Nixtamalization releases the niacin from those other chemicals. Following the development of nixtamalization, cases of niacin deficiency dropped, and the region’s first major civilizations began popping up.
(Fun fact: A 1997 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggested that pellagra could’ve been responsible for the rise of vampire myths. As corn became a major part of European diets, many peasants consumed un-nixtamalized corn as if it was any other grain that could be treated with powerful mills. This led to widespread niacin deficiencies and rampant cases of pellagra. The article’s authors suggest that the disease‘s symptoms, such as the sensitivity to light that accompanies dermatitis, could be tied to the rise of vampire legends.)
Nixtamalized corn comes with one more perk—one that’s of particular interest to us. When it’s nixtamalized, corn can be made into masa—basically a corn dough. It’s the basis for tacos, tamales, and pupasas, along with many other amazing dishes. And in the modern era, that includes Tex-Mex favorites like nachos.
People in Mexico have been flattening balls of masa and cooking them to make tortillas for thousands of years. And for many of those years, cooks would fry up extra hunks of tortillas to make chilaquiles. The fried tortilla pieces are covered in salsa and served with delicious toppings like cotija cheese and meat. It may be one of the closer analogues to nachos you’ll commonly find in Mexico.
When whole corn tortillas are fried in fat, they’re called tostadas—which literally translates to toasted in Spanish. Tostadas are often topped with tasty ingredients, from seafood to beans, but at their core, they’re basically giant tortilla chips. And the history of fried tortillas probably goes way back. According to a doctoral thesis written by Vanessa Fonseca, there is an account from the 16th century of pedazos fritos de tortilla, or fried tortilla strips, though those may have been dry-toasted, rather than fried in oil.
In any case, the modern, bite-sized version of the fried tortilla didn’t really begin to emerge as a distinct category until the 1900s. Tortilla-making was becoming commercialized around the turn of the century, and factory owners were looking for ways to repurpose the excess tortillas that would otherwise go to waste. These scraps were often fried, cut into chips, and distributed to restaurants in the area.
So how did the chips go from tortilla factory afterthought to snack aisle staple? Credit is often given to Rebecca Webb Carranza. In the late 1940s, Carranza was president of El Zarape Tortilla Factory in Los Angeles. She fried tortilla scraps into chips, and after serving them at a family party, she saw that people couldn’t get enough of them. “Tort Chips,” as she called them, were initially sold for 10 cents a bag from the factory delicatessen. By the 1960s, the chips had replaced regular tortillas as the business’s main product.
Carranza wasn’t the first person to make tortilla chips and sell them to the public—in the 1930s, a California grocer was advertising “Mexican Tortilla Chips in cellophane package,” and in the 1910s, a company owned by Bartolo Martinez was selling tortilla chips in San Antonio, Texas. Martinez is an interesting figure in the history of corn products—his company, known at various times as Azteca Mills, Tamalina Milling Company, and B. Martinez Sons Company, had previously patented the so-called “Tamalina process,” which produces a long-lasting dehydrated form of masa that could be easily packed and distributed to consumers, restaurants, and even tortilla factories. This innovation had lasting impact, and the company’s claim to have created the first commercial corn chip is perhaps the most persuasive account available.
Even though Carranza isn’t the inventor of the tortilla chip, she did kick off the trend of manufacturing them on a massive scale. Frito-Lay took her vision even further. In1966, the snack company introduced Doritos, Spanish for “little golden things,” to the national market. They originally came in one flavor: toasted corn. That’s right—the first Doritos were just plain tortilla chips in a bag. It would take another six years for Doritos to roll out Nacho Cheese, the brand’s most popular flavor of all time.
No matter what toppings are on your nachos, you’ll almost always find cheese in some form. But exactly what form that cheese takes can vary.
Ignacio Garcia’s original nachos were topped with some type of American cheese, possibly longhorn. Even today you rarely see traditional Mexican cheeses like cotija or queso oaxaca served on a platter of nachos. A much more common choice is Monterey Jack. It originated in the Franciscan monasteries of Monterey, California, in the 1700s. The semi-firm cow’s milk cheese has since become an integral part of Tex-Mex cuisine. It melts easily, providing that ooey-gooey texture that’s so important to nachos, and it’s milder than other cheeses, so it doesn’t clash with the bold flavors found in a lot of Tex-Mex food.
But when you hear “nacho cheese,” you probably don’t think about Monterey Jack. What more likely comes to mind is the semi-liquid stuff that comes in that particular shade of yellow rarely found in nature. This version of nacho cheese didn’t emerge until 30 years after Ignacio Garcia’s original creation. By that time, nachos had become a popular offering in bars and restaurants in much of the United States. Carmen Rocha, who waited tables at El Cholo Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles from 1959 to the 1990s, is commonly credited with popularizing nachos out West. She was introduced to them in Texas, and while working in LA, she served them as an off-menu item to customers. The dish was so popular that it quickly earned a permanent spot on the El Cholo menu and spread to other eateries throughout the region.
Frank Liberto saw the potential of nachos beyond bar food. He was the owner of the concessions company Ricos Products in the 1970s, and he thought nachos would be successful at sporting events. He planned to bring them to the stadium where the Texas Rangers played in Arlington, but there was one problem: Baseball fans weren’t going to wait several minutes for cheese to melt on their chips. Liberto knew he needed to come up with a version of nachos that could be assembled quickly, so he developed nacho cheese: a shelf-stable product that maintained its gooey consistency and was ready to be ladled onto tortilla chips the moment customers placed their order.
Many brands of nacho cheese owe their perpetual meltiness to something called sodium citrate, a type of salt that lowers the acidity in cheese. That allows the proteins in the cheese to become more soluble, which means the emulsified liquid and fat is less likely to separate when melted. So when you add sodium citrate to cheese, it melts more easily and stays melted without getting oily or clumpy. The chemical formula for sodium citrate is actually Na₃C₆H₅O₇).
The ready-made nachos were well received when they debuted at a Texas Rangers game in 1976, but they really took off in 1978. By then, nachos had made it to Texas Stadium in Irving, and when announcer Howard Cosell was served a plate of them in the broadcast booth, they became the surprise star of a Cowboys game. He repeatedly made references to them throughout the night, even using the word nacho to describe plays he liked. By the time the fourth quarter ended, nachos had solidified their place in American culture.
Nacho purists may prefer their chips with cheese and some sliced jalapenos, as they were first served in 1943, but the dish has evolved far past Garcia’s original recipe. Today, it’s not uncommon to find nachos topped with beans, guacamole, ground beef, salsa, and sour cream. You can riff on the template endlessly, for good and for ill. Online you can find instructions to make poutine nachos, Thanksgiving leftover nachos, and even dessert nachos.
Nachos are, in a way, a culinary microcosm of America. They’re the product of traditional ingredients and cross-cultural exchange; they combine scientific achievement and commerce to create something that now extends throughout the world. And they may just be one of history’s most successful examples of fusion cuisine.