On The Range: Bar-Mex (Nachos, Chips And Stuff Like That)

Most of us--well, most non-Hispanics, anyway--have been eating nachos for many years without a clue as to where the term originated.

You see, in Tejano culture, "Nacho" is merely the nickname for Ignacio, a rather common name in Spanish-speaking households. And according to Robb Walsh and his Tex-Mex Cookbook, this delicacy common to every Tex-Mex restaurant and bar in Texas was cooked up on a whim by Ignacio Anaya, a waiter at the Victory Club back in 1941. Many years later, Bill Salter, a staff writer for the San Antonio Express-News, tracked down Anaya to get his version of the story:

"These four ladies were sitting at the bar....and wanted some fried tortillas, but there was nobody in the kitchen. I sliced a tortilla in four pieces, put some cheese and slices of jalapeno on top, and stuck it in the oven for a few minutes."

Walsh notes that the women were so taken by the dish, that they wanted to know what it was called so they could order the plate again. Replied Anaya: "Just call them Nacho's Especial." Even though Anaya's creation was probably not entirely original, his nickname stuck.

I've used the term "Bar-Mex" to describe what Walsh refers to as "Mexican junk food"--the chips, dips, chili con queso, Frito pie, and (of course) nachos that fill in the gaps between Margaritas. Go into any self-respecting pub in Dallas you'll probably find one or more of these creations on the menu.

Frito-Lay's famous jalapeno bean dip, Fritos themselves, Rotel Tomatoes, and Pace's Picante sauce are all Texas inventions. But not Velveeta, that long-lasting queso favorite. James L. Kraft of Stockton, Illinois, invented the processed cheese mixture in 1928, and used it to help create a dynasty. Still, the Velveeta and Rotel combo that is queso at its most basic has become so identified with the Lone Star state that Rosemary Kent included it in her Genuine Texas Handbook, noting that it's "a must at slumber parties." And of course, any seven-year-old is familiar with the classic recipe for Frito Pie: Simply take a can of Wolf brand chili and pour it into a small bag of Fritos, add onions or cheese if you wish, and you're good to go.

In his book Mex Tex, legendary restauranteur Matt Martinez, who passed away last week, revealed that he invented his very famous Bob Armstrong Dip on a whim, as well. Seems that one day, the former Texas Land Commissioner wandered into Matt's El Rancho and demanded that "Little Matt" create a new appetizer for him, one that was not on the menu. Martinez simply grabbed whatever came to hand: taco meat, guacamole, sour cream, and queso, layered them all in a single dish, and stuck it in the oven. Armstrong was so taken with the dish that he bragged about it at the State Capitol after lunch.

Today, very few bars or Mex establishments don't have at least one layered dip of some kind or another on their menu .

Mattito's sells classic versions of many of the Bar-Mex standards, along with a range of Tex-Mex dishes, old-school and otherwise. Nachos of course are featured not only in the classic bean-and-cheese incarnation, but also topped with fajita beef or chicken--all served with the usual accompaniments. Mattio's also boasts a good chili con queso, better chips than many places and salsa with a bite.

They will also make you their own version of a Bob Armstrong Dip, not on the menu but highly recommended by the waiter. Their take on the Martinez classic is made sans guacamole, but the resulting combination of thick queso, salsa, sour cream, and seasoned taco meat is satisfying enough--and proof of the ever-evolving nature of Tex-Mex. 

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Chris Meesey