Imagine a plate piled high with crisp tortilla chips smothered in seasoned ground beef, tomatoes, beans and a tasty cheese-like substance. Yeah, there's nothing wrong with that picture. But plain old restaurant nachos can get (pardon the pun) stale, since the chips often come from a bag and the ingredients are always the same. Well, almost always.
For this week's Battle of the Dishes, we tracked down two popular local restaurants offering unusual nachos: one, a pseudo-Scottish local pub chain that subs potato chips for tortillas and the other a cheap-ass Mexican joint with a new breakfast nacho platter.
In One Corner: Tilted Kilt
660 W. Warner Rd. in Tempe
Our first stop was Tilted Kilt, a Scottish/English pub concept that started out in Vegas and spread like wildfire (or herpes, whatever) around the country. If you've never been there, let's just say the main draw isn't the food. Or the beer. Or the decor, though the cherry wood, pool table and huge bar definitely give the place a cozy Irish pub feel.
Waitresses in teensy kilts the size of table napkins and matching plaid bras parade around the dark pub loaded down with trays of fried pub foods, yard pints and shepherd's pie. Thus the idea that your kilt will be er, tilted upwards in salute if you dine there regimental (sans underwear). Thank god the male patrons there on our visit were all wearing pants.
One of the house specialties at Tilted Kilt is TK's Irish Nachos, described as "fresh-cooked crispy potato chips covered with cheese sauce, seasoned ground beef and tomatoes." If you're imagining a bag of Lay's smothered in nacho toppings, you've only got it half right. Irish "chips" are slices of fried potato akin to round steak fries. Our order arrived and we dug in.
The chips were excellent -- thick slabs of piping hot fried potato with a crisp outer layer of skin and very little grease. "I admit I like the thinner ones more," said my dining companion, remarking on the potato slices which had curled up into hard American-style chips. "I should try this at home with kettle-cooked chips." I preferred the starchier slabs that had just slightly crisped around the edges. But hey, there's something here for everyone.
The beef was relatively lean and not greasy, though the spice mix was so light it was barely detectable. Tomatoes were light and refreshing, albeit underripe. Nacho cheese was a step above the congealed "cheese food" you get with movie theatre nachos, reminding me of childhood snacks made with Velveeta. Natural cheese might taste better, but the fake stuff melts cleaner and works well for nachos.
The only thing missing was black beans, which would've given the dish another shot of earthiness to balance out the meat and heavy cheese. Otherwise, TK's Irish Nachos is a solid starter -- even if a real Scotsman would hurl at the thought of this being considered an authentic Scottish dish.
In the Other Corner: Dos Gringos
4209 North Craftsman Court in Scottsdale
Dos Gringos is a Mexican patio bar with four locations across the Valley. I've always been partial to the Scottsdale one, which resembles a beachside shack crammed with eclectic signs including a cheeky border crossing plaque, surprisingly tucked between upscale brick buildings along Scottsdale's Craftsman Court. Everything is intentionally rustic, with weathered wood, peeling paint and bright Mexican colors.
Dos Gringos is deceptively large: two massive outdoor dining patios with bar-height picnic tables and built-in wooden banquettes, a cantina building and a restaurant area with more of the same plank furniture and a double-sided bar. It's all open space, with no pesky doors and windows to stop the flow of hot or cold air and just a few well-placed heaters to change the climate. Plastic sheeting prevents patio air from flowing onto the sidewalk but provides zero privacy from passersby.
The place is popular with college students, mostly because it's cheap and serves lots of alcohol. The atmosphere's pretty sweet too, especially on Friday or Saturday nights at the Tempe location. Food runs to gringo Mexican, with options including burros, chimis, deep-fried "monster" tacos and of course, nachos. Dos Gringos recently added a breakfast menu served until 4 p.m. on weekends, which is where we stumbled upon a great invention: the Breakfast Nacho, made with hash browns instead of tortilla chips.
There's a weird discrepancy between Dos Gringos' meatless in-person menu description and the online version which includes chorizo, sour cream, guac, pico, presumably shredded cheese AND nacho cheese. Our server must have known, because she pointed out the lack of meat and asked us if we'd like to add some. Black beans were also included with our nachos, though the online menu fails to mention them.
Our plate arrived and..."HOLY CRAP THAT'S A TON OF FOOD!" No wonder why students love this place. Our pretty terracotta plate was piled with enough diced potatoes, spiced meat and toppings to feed both of us to overflowing and still have leftovers. "Mmm, this would make the perfect hangover breakfast," raved my dining partner as he chowed down on a forkful of smothered potato. "I hate that I need the fork, though. Nachos should be finger food." True dat.
Still, I the thick hash brown potatoes were a nice base for the meat, which was nicely spiced but slightly greasier than its Irish competitor. This wasn't Taco Bell grade meat, more like a nice 80/20 you'd find in the grocery store. Black beans grounded the dish, while mid-grade nacho cheese was rich and savory. The only negative? My companion commented that the potatoes could've been crispier. He had a point. The pasty texture of potato and cooked black bean is similar enough that extra crispness would've been nice for contrast. Otherwise, this was an excellent breakfast.
The Winner: Both dishes had lowbrow appeal, but the Mexican-spiced beef of Dos Gringos' Breakfast Nacho and the sheer amount of food provided made their version a much better bang for the buck.