1981 Nachos on the bar menu

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We know precisely when nachos were invented, but we don’t know exactly when they arrived in Australia or when they became ubiquitous in pubs. However, the first documented occasion they appeared as a bar snack here was in 1981 when, along with chicken wings and stuffed mushroom caps, they were offered in the mezzanine bar at Adam’s Apple Cocktail Bar and Restaurant in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.

Nachos are named after their inventor, Ignacio Anaya (Nacho is the diminutive form of Ignacio). He was a restaurateur at the Victory Club in the small Mexican town of  Piedras Negras and, in 1943, had to rustle up a snack for some  US military wives who were in town on a shopping trip.  He concocted a dish of fried tortillas, melted cheese and jalapeño peppers, which the delighted diners labelled “Nacho’s specials” or nachos especiales.

Starting from Eagle Pass, the Texan town just across the border, the dish eventually spread through the southern United States and beyond. Snack food companies soon began producing corn crackers, corn chips and tortilla chips and nachos became the Mexican hor oeuvre. Then, in 1976, an entrepreneur named Frank Liberto introduced nachos to baseball stadiums in the US, using emulsified cheese that could be pumped onto the corn chips.  Finally, it was nachos for the masses. In 1994, the Tucson Citizen called Liberto ‘the Thomas Edison of the jalapeño, the Frank Perdue of the corn chip’.

In Australia, nachos may have arrived in the 1960s with Bill Chilcote, founder of the Taco Bill chain of Mexican restaurants. However, if he based his operation on Taco Bell in the USA, chances are nachos were not on the original menu. Even in the late 1970s, corn chips were an exotic item in Australia, being offered wholesale by importers including a Mexican restaurant in Sydney. In 1979, Butler’s in Potts Point was serving corn chips with guacamole for brunch (but such was our ignorance of Mexican food that the reviewer had to explain what guacamole was).

In the early 1980s, though, corn chips arrived with a bang. In August 1984, The Age wrote:

Three years ago corn chips – a sort of triangular bastardization of the taco shell – were available only in Mexican stores. Now they make up 10 per cent of the Australian snack food market and have eaten their way into the market for pretzels and extruded snack foods such as Cheezels and Twisties.

The article, written when Arnott’s launched their Doritos corn chips, credited a Brisbane company called Siesta Food Products as the original marketers of corn chips in Australia. Although they may have been first into the market, in 1981, employing real Mexicans to help develop the product, they were clearly no match for the might of Arnott’s and APD (later Smith’s Snack Foods), who launched CCs in the early ’80s.

Taco Bill was definitely serving nachos, complete with the jalapeños, by 1983 (see left).  The cheesy dish became a popular bar snack in pubs, often without the peppers but topped with sour cream and tomato salsa. It was also served without the hot stuff in our home where small children could consume limitless quantities.  Today your pub nachos are likely to have plenty of extras including black beans, chilli beef or chicken. The Mexican chain Zomato offers nachos with guacamole as standard and a choice of five different protein toppings and seven different sauces. Ignacio Anaya’s simple dish has got a lot more complicated.

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