Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
Nachos are one of the least respected foods in the Mexican-American snack food canon. They are the native cuisine of bowling alley snack bars and musty neighborhood sports bars, the kind of lowbrow comfort food you eat when you need to satiate a craving for something crunchy, crispy, and blanketed in melted cheese.
The average nacho platter, in other words, is as venerated as boxed wine and deep-fried chicken fingers.
Part of the fault lies with nachos themselves. The food universe is swarming with middling to godawful nacho platters. Like you, I've seen nachos at their worst. I've seen nacho platters that are hard to look at, and even harder to eat. I'm talking a flotsam of stale supermarket corn chips, jalapeño slices, and congealed nacho cheese, halfheartedly dressed up with black olives. I'm talking gummy, goopy, sad nachos, embedded with shredded chicken so dry and flavorless, you might as well be eating cotton balls.
You know where the nachos don't suck, though? Cocina 10, the Mexican restaurant installed at Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix.
I remember when Crescent Ballroom and Cocina 10 opened in 2011, and how radical and auspicious it was to have an honest-to-goodness cool place to hang out in downtown Phoenix. And I remember the happy leap of my heart when I heard the description of the menu: food inspired by the people and places of Interstate 10.
Like many Phoenicians, I grew up eating along the Interstate 10, the hard-working freeway that cuts across the lower Southwest, from southern California to metropolitan Phoenix to El Paso, Texas, until it finally empties into the great beyond, a.k.a. Jacksonville, Florida.
So it was gratifying to see Cocina 10 celebrate the I-10 with a robust selection of the region's workaday Mexican foods, including bean-and-cheese burritos (the hot aluminum-wrapped parcels are cleverly sealed with a sticker bearing the face of Mr. Bean); a very good rendition of carne asada tacos; and classic Mexican-American comfort food, like nachos.
Cocina 10 debuted under the aegis of some serious culinary pedigree, too: Local heavy-hitters Chris Bianco and Doug Robson had a hand in designing the menu of "Mexican-accented road food."
What makes Cocina 10's I-10 nachos so irresistible is that they're made with a sense of abundance and integrity: thick, hot tortilla chips baked with refried pinto beans, and glued together by at least three types of cheese: cheddar, Oaxaca, and a light sprinkling of cotija.
They're adorned with cilantro and fresh pico, then finished off with a delicate lashing of sour cream. A thick, lovely glob of fresh guacamole is served on the side, so that you can dig into it at your leisure. The chip-to-toppings ratio is pretty consistently spot-on — a crucial factor of any successful nacho platter.
The I-10 Nachos are made even better with some of the kitchen's spongy, delectable barbacoa. The barbacoa add-on is not cheap — you'll pay an extra $3, last time I checked. But the juicy tufts of meat elevate the nachos from cheesy snack to full-blown meal.
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No, this is not a terribly sophisticated dish. But it's nearly always irresistible, hearty, and delicious.
We live in complicated and confused times, which means some days just beg for the dependable crunch and smoldering cheesiness of nachos. It's a classic dish that radiates the good-natured, natural abundance of the very best Mexican-American street snacks. And it's a dish that Cocina 10 treats with a rare sense of respect.
Cocina 10 at Crescent Ballroom. 308 North Second Avenue; 602-716-2222.
Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays & Sundays, 5 p.m. to midnight.