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Ah, nachos — one of the great communal dishes. I have fond memories of ordering them at a sports bar after city-league basketball games. Five or six hungry fellas grabbing sloppy, loaded chips right off the platter, no individual plates necessary. No forks, either. I don’t remember us washing our hands. 

Sadly for me and my hands, those days are well past, and my nacho experiences have been few and far between since. I’m wondering: During the field work for this edition, will I eat them in a more civilized fashion?

For this week’s FFF, I stepped away from the apples-to-apples paradigm. One of the contestants — Nueva Cantina in St. Pete — is a traditional Mexican restaurant that serves conventional nachos. The other — The Hangar, also in St. Pete — is an eclectic American-style eatery with a unique take on the dish.

Nueva Cantina

This rustic place is located on 4th Street South, a mile-and-a-half from Central Avenue. We arrived on Tuesday around 6, having forgotten that it was Taco Tuesday.

The restaurant was nearly full. The interior lighting had a colorful, nightclubby vibe that accented the campy Mexican-themed images on the wall (skeletons, Lucha libre wrestlers, et al). We sat a booth next to a window, ordered the Nachos ($10.95) and added ground beef ($3.95)

Our charming server, Lauren, took time with us first-timers, even though the joint was bustling.

Appearance

The huge portion sat on a tray that measured about 12×8 inches. The tortilla chips were topped with plenty of enticing stuff: black beans, lettuce, tomato, black olives, and hefty slices of jalapeño, topped with poblano crema sauce.

Then I spotted something odd: A large piece of ground beef lurked on the side, resembling a dry meatball. It was as if the beef we ordered had all gathered into one big clump.

I brought this to Lauren’s attention, and she gladly granted my request for a new round of beef.

Texture and Taste

I went at these nachos old-school, with my hands. It made for some messy going. I avoided the slices of jalapeño, but Bonnie ate them and said they were medium hot. The flavors blended together nicely, although the beef could’ve used some more seasoning.

One of the hazards of eating nachos is that when you get to the lower layers the chips are soggy. Alas, this inevitable development required the use of a fork. The lettuce had wilted, the tomato had sagged, the beans had congealed. The taste became homogenous. In all, it was a typical nacho-eating experience.

We over-ordered. It being Taco Tuesday, we selected three different ones to check out. In all we got about halfway through the tacos and halfway through the nachos. The remainder didn’t seem like good doggy-bag material.

The Hangar

The Hangar is located on the second floor of the Albert Whitted Airport building. At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, it was seasonably hot, but not terribly humid, so we opted to sit on the patio that overlooks the landing strip. We were bonused with a lovely breeze.

Founded by downtown restaurant mogul Steve Westphal, the Hangar was purchased last November by its longtime chef, Matt Smith. He’s added a few new items, but the menu hasn’t changed much. The Hangar Nachos ($14.50) have been a staple for quite some time, according to our server, Alicia.

It’s always fun watching the small planes take off at Albert Whitted, less fun when an eight-seater pulls in nearby with a deafening din.

Learning from our wasteful ways the evening before, we ordered the Hangar Nachos to split.

Appearance

I’m about to write a sentence that I know I shouldn’t. But try as I might, I don’t think I can stop my fingers from doing so.

These were nacho typical nachos.

They included pulled pork, tomatoes, and blueberry barbecue sauce, drizzled with smoked gouda cheese, spread atop — get this — house-made (and blasphemous) potato chips.

It all came on a simple white plate that was considerably smaller than the loaded tray at Nueva Cantina.

Texture and Taste

Compared to the night before, eating these nachos was positively dainty.

We each scooped some on our own small plate. I eyed a ridged potato chip with suspicion, then added some of the toppings and opened wide. Hmm, tasty. The pulled pork was a standout, and worked well with the melted gouda.

I was also leery of the sauce, but that turned out to add a touch of unusual but welcome sweetness. And there were actual blueberries in there, too. Although I prefer tortilla chips, these potato chips (which weren’t salted) did not wilt. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss the beans.

However: Once we finished the toppings, we were left with a layer of chips lightly sprinkled with the barbecue sauce. In particular, the amount of pulled pork was kind of paltry. Bonnie beat me to the last chunk, but I didn’t pout.

We ate the entire portion, and left full but not stuffed.

And the Winner of the Nachos Scrap Is …

The Hangar.

Although you could argue that The Hangar’s are nachos in name only, I give chef Smith credit for innovation, putting together an odd mix of ingredients and succeeding.

Nueva Cantina’s dish was big and hearty and gooey and unkempt — in a generally good way. A family of four could probably have split the portion, as long as that family didn’t include teenaged boys.

As a final note, neither of these nachos came close to the best I’ve ever had. Last November, at the the lobby restaurant of the La Fonda on the Plaza hotel in Santa Fe, N.M., Bonnie and I and another couple ordered the Buffalo Nachos (featuring buffalo short rib) for a late-afternoon snack.

When four seniors rave on and on about a plate of nachos, that’s saying something. About a week later, on the day we left for home, Bonnie and I stopped in for another round. They were just as good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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