The more I travel to Mexico, the less I realize I know about Mexican cuisine. That goes for both my knowledge of traditional foods and in the anything-goes world of Mexican junk food and snacks. Just when I feel I’ve really got a handle on it, I turn the corner in a familiar town—or jump off of the free road into a village I’ve never heard of—and there it is, hand written in the corner of a cardboard sign: epiphany on a tortilla. I live for those moments, but sometimes the absurd and unorthodox evokes the same curiosity, as it was in the case of papa nachos, which are French fries covered in nacho cheese sauce, diced pickled jalapeños from a can, and a finishing swirl of hot sauce.
Papa nachos were everywhere in the state of Coahuila—where I also came across elote vendors serving cups of cooked corn mixed which sour cream, chipotle sauce and grated cheddar cheese—which also happens to be the birthplace of nachos. And, before any of you southern Mexican cuisine snobs engage in food geek snorts and giggles, I found the same dish in Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood last weekend, simply called papas a la francesa, or French fries, which were available in a covering of queso liquido. It’s a thing; it’s 100% Mexican junk food, and L.A. institution Carnitas Michoacan #3 is the joint to get this plate of liquid gold.
Don’t let the name fool you; the carnitas at Carnitas Michoacan #3 are terrible. A stale tortilla covered in sad chunks of dry, flavorless pork is what constitutes a taco at this popular spot for pochos and non-Latinos alike, so it makes sense that carne asada burritos and nachos are the restaurant’s signature items. But when it comes to papa nachos, Carnitas Michoacan is the standard bearer of all things liquid yellow cheese.