Like karaoke and group sex, nachos are best enjoyed buzzed if not outright blitzed, for the memory-burnishing properties of alcohol might, if you are lucky, mitigate that sour ache of regret and shame smoldering in your belly when you wake up. This is why a highly unscientific survey of friends uncovered only the haziest anecdotal evidence of nacho appreciation; I had to pry for straight answers, and I must admit to feeling a bit like Dr. Kinsey in a syphilis ward. Uncouth, you might say, this STD analogy, but I would counter that a pile of fried corn topped with cheese asphalt, questionable meat nuggets, sour cream and a hillock of guac might not deserve a decorous metaphor.
My month of arterial masochism involved too many late nights and nearly as many mortified mornings, and it literally brought me to my knees at least once. What follows is not a list of the very best nachos in Portland, but a survey of the various wild ways grease and fat have been arranged for your pleasure and pain (rated on a scale of 1 to 4 tortilla chips). I've given each dish a nickname, but it doesn't matter what you call the murderous heap you choose to pluck from: You'll forget everything in the morning anyway.
Florida Room, 435 N Killingsworth St., 287-5658.
I began this quest certain that Florida Room's black bean nachos ($5) would emerge the clear winner. Time was I'd regularly pop into my favorite neighborhood dive for what I long considered Portland's best cheap barroom grease-bomb—I would even do so sans a hankering for liquor. But at some point in the past year or two, while I wasn't looking, Florida Room decided to switch to Taco Bell-style "queso sauce," that viscous yellow stuff beloved by ballparks and Quik Stops. The other toppings remain the same, but without actual melted cheese, the dish devolves into a wet and messy disappointment. That sound you hear is my heart breaking.
"The Peter Singer"
Taqueria Los Gorditos, 1212 SE Division St., 445-6289.
Los Gorditos isn't the only place in town with a vegan nacho option—Blossoming Lotus does amazing things with walnut chips and cashew sour cream, for instance—but Gorditos' animal-friendly pileup ($6.50, plus 75 cents for fake dairy products) makes great strides in the direction of a just world in which vegans can pretend they're eating meat as nasty and contaminated as the grisly garbage carnivores consume. Although the chips are dollar-store disappointments, the tangy Soyrizo, velvety "sour cream" and thick slices of avocado merge into a fresh mess of flavors that puts the bland base layer to shame. Tip: Don't bother with the vegan cheese. It doesn't melt—major nacho no-no!
Dots Cafe, 2521 SE Clinton St., 235-0203.
This is it, the greasy creation I will crave at that distant point in the future when I can once again think about nachos without shivering and crying. Dots forgoes needless embellishments and focuses on the simple things that make nachos such a treat for crapulent gorgers: The chips are piping hot; the perfectly melted cheese attains almost total coverage while developing a subtle crust at the edges of the plate; sour cream zigs and zags across the entire outer layer; and the salsa, devilish agent of sogginess, gets its own small bowl. Dots offers meat for an additional buck, but the unadorned cheese-only version ($6.50) is what we talk about when we talk about nachos.
"The Cracker Bash"
Liberty Glass, 938 N Cook St., 517-9931.
Like Oaks Bottom Public House's totchos, the Triscuit nachos ($8) at Liberty Glass flout convention with a gimmicky and vaguely perverse alternative to tortilla chips. An adorable portmanteau eludes me—"Trichos" evokes the image of a strapping Greek god—but I'm not sure a hardwood floor carpeted with cheese really deserves a snappy name. No amount of cheddar and jack and red pepper tapenade and sour cream will ever change the fundamentally unfriendly nature of Triscuits. The sawdust cracker slabs are so dry I resorted to yoga poses to maneuver them past the choking zone. I'm just not ready to start dipping my food into my beer to help the stuff go down, as I am neither a duck nor a competitive eater. I am a gentleman, and nachos should never demand such an unseemly transgression.
"The Kosher Nightmare"
Esparza's Tex-Mex Cafe, 2725 SE Ankeny St., 234-7909.
The blanched paper awards from Esparza's mid-'90s heyday tacked to the wall behind the bar are unspeakably sad to me. It's not Esparza's I feel sad for. It's me. I will likely be outlived by this tenacious institution. Alas, we all die, while Tex-Mex lives on. Bummer. But do you know what nachos are really good for? Eating the pain away. Esparza's shredded-pork nachos ($8.65) are an especially happy-making concoction of warm chips right out of the fryer topped by a thick stratification of sweet pork and a heavy blanket of cheese. Every single chip enjoys pork and cheese coverage, which eliminates those awkward moments of rudderless indecision (to guac or not to guac) that have marred many an excavation of more traditional chip ziggurats.
Javier's Taco Shop, 121 N Lombard St., 286-3186.
I don't believe brevity is necessarily the soul of wit, but it sort of has to be when you have a tummy ache. So I'll be quick: This infernal muddle of carne asada, barely melted cheese and goop that resembles guacamole ($4.50 medium, $6.50 large) subs fries for chips, and you'd be better off dumpster-diving for diapers. Just what the doctor ordered, though, if you're looking to leave this world the same way you entered it: screaming and utterly terrified.