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Eat: Nachoria 

Wednesday, Feb 24 2016
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Few restaurant openings go as viral as the news that Burlingame was getting a nacho restaurant. Begun by Nick Swinmurn, founder of online shoe retailer Zappos, Nachoria is hardly the "all-nacho" restaurant it's been described as, but the idea of single-item-themed stores and restaurants has proven resilient. San Francisco had a bread pudding shop (R.I.P. Schulzies), Brooklyn has a mayonnaise store, and Chicago has the Meatloaf Bakery, which makes cupcakes called Loafies with mashed potato frosting. Today's Bay Area even has a chain devoted to grilled cheese sandwiches, arguably the easiest thing in the world to make.

But Nachoria is more than just nachos: It's basically a Nouveau California-style Mexican restaurant, and tacos and beer are its other two selling points. I can get squarely behind this mystic triangle, and so could New York magazine, which awarded Nachoria the coveted "Lowbrow Brilliant" spot on its Approval Matrix two weeks ago. Thus, the world is paying attention to the ninth-largest city in San Mateo County like never before. (After selling Zappos to Amazon in 2006, Swinmurn — whose culinary influence may stem from the frequent trips to Puerto Vallarta he and his wife take — began a few other ventures. He's really into nachos; apparently, he tried to patent the word "Notchos" at one point.)

Yet Nachoria doesn't really feel like some rich guy's toy, even if it might be just that. There's an earnestness to the place that would probably be the same if it were the project of some kids right out of college, building a temple to honor the foodstuff that kept them alive through the years when they were broke and/or didn't know how to cook. It's going to attract whimsical diners who come for irony's sake, but there's nothing ironic about Nachoria.

Accordingly, the nachos are larded up with goodies: fire-roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, and green onions, plus a dusting of queso fresco. We got two orders to share among three people: one with ceviche, and one with carnitas. The carnitas — an easy thing to get very wrong — were thick and oily-fibrous, and everything came out almost instantaneously. (The speed with which the imperial rolls at Tú Lan appear is about the only thing that would beat them.) The portions are enormous and you could probably feed a family of five on these $12 platters, provided the children were young. But my objection was pretty fundamental and comes down to the cheese. It's gross. It's an inbred first cousin of Cheez Whiz, and it's so filling that any attempt to really dig into your giant plate of nachos isimmediately bogged down in a sea of lactose.

Just to clarify this grievance, nachos usually go off the rails when they taste like cardboard or become so soggy that everything collapses. Neither of those scenarios happened here; it was just bad cheese. The ceviche ($3) was also pretty weak, a small ramekin of seafood that was mostly tiny shrimp.

But there were lots of good points. We tried the carne asada quesadillas (three for $10) and the melted white cheddar inside the charred pockets was an order of magnitude better than the nacho cheese. The tortillas are fresh and "house fried" — I can't decide if that's an honest description or a lawyerly dodge around the spirit of house-made-ness — and of the three sauces on the table, I would categorize two as excellent. All things being equal, I'd love a salsa bar, but every table has its own bottles of Verde, Sayulita and Diablo. Verde was inoffensively mild. (No shame in that game, but that's never going to be my favorite.) The Diablo sauce was, predictably, the spicy one, but the Sayulita — named for the beach town an hour north of Puerto Vallarta that's Mexico's current It-destination — was even better, a chipotle aioli with just enough heat.

But let's talk about my ulna-fracturing michelada for a second. Whichever's bigger, a goblet or a chalice, is still an inadequate descriptor for the size of this vessel. There was too much ice in it, but for $7, it's a great deal and adds to Nachoria's hangover-recovery appeal. There are $9 margaritas that come with the "option to add a swirl" (although I never did ask what "a swirl" was) as well as a vodka limonada ($9, also swirl-able), bellinis ($12), Prosecco, and wine. That sounds frightfully upscale until you see that you can order a bucket of six Negra Modelos or Pacificos for $24, which is way closer to what a focus group testing out nachos would clamor for.

I'm also into Nachoria's décor, and not just because it dodges skull art and other cultural appropriation. The Swinmurns could easily have opted for a T.G.I. Friday's, wall-mounted-alligators-wearing-sunglasses look but chose an artsy, Aztec-derived minimalism instead, plus some star-shaped polyhedral chandeliers, "Greetings From"-style postcard art, and a few lucha libre masks.

But the cheese, the cheese. No exhortations to "Viva La Vida" or "Enjoy Life, Tri Everything" can redeem it. Honestly, if Nachoria tinkered with it, I could see myself making this restaurant a routine road trip pit stop, à la the Kettleman City In-N-Out. But for now at least, the simplest critique is the one that hits the hardest: You can do this at home.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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