Frito pie is best described as a guilty pleasure. Corn chips piled high with homemade chili, cheese, crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and a dollop of cool sour cream. It’s origins are up for debate, but one thing is clear – it’s delicious.
For a long time, I thought frito pie was made up by someone suffering from a hangover as a way to ward off the pain and discomfort after hitting the bottle a little too hard. It wasn’t until I moved to New Mexico that I learned that the frito pie is a real thing with a long history that includes a border war between Texas and New Mexico since both states claim to have invented the dish. However, it may be that both states are wrong and that the famed pie originated the same way the chocolate chip cookie recipe did – by a company trying to sell corn chips. Go figure.
Anyway, in Santa Fe, NM the Five and Dime General Store serves their version in a frito bag – they first cut open the bag and then top the corn chips with chili and toppings and pass it right to the waiting customer. This is the same place Anthony Bourdain visited for an episode of his show Parts Unknown and, unfortunately for the Five and Dime, Mr. Bourdain gave two thumbs down to this delicacy with his usual barrage of insults and colorful commentary. However, he retracted his comments after the frito pie lovers of the world revolted and I’m glad he did. You want to know why?
Because frito pie is freaking awesome.
I’ve wanted to post this favorite of mine for a long time, but even I sometimes have trouble admitting how much I love those crunchy corn chips piled high with chili, cheddar cheese, crispy iceberg lettuce, and sour cream. Remember that episode of Will & Grace where Karen takes Grace to Taco Time? That’s totally how I feel about frito pie. When I lived in New Mexico, I sometimes ordered this guilty pleasure for lunch at work on days where the only thing I had to look forward to was a bowl of junk food that I got to call “lunch”. Just like Karen with her tacos I’d hide in a secluded booth and savor every last bite.
Frito pies are hard to come by in North Carolina, so now I make my own version at home. This serves two purposes: first, I get to make my own chili and, second, I get to top the pie with whatever I want. Cheddar cheese, crisp iceberg lettuce, fresh tomatoes, a dollop of sour cream, and a sprinkling of scallions is the way I dress mine up – simple and easy. The best part? No more hiding in the shadows with my sunglasses on- instead I just turn the lights down and sink into the couch with my bowl of frito pie. It’s just me, my frito pie, a cold beer, and a trashy TV show.
More Chili Recipes
There are a few things I miss about living in New Mexico and close to the top of the list is frito pie. Now I make it at home and it's one of my favorite guilty pleasures - crunchy fritos topped with homemade chili, chedder cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream. I whipped up a simple chili for this recipe, but feel free to substitute your favorite chili - the rest is very easy!
15 minPrep Time
40 minCook Time
55 minTotal Time
- For the Chili
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 bell pepper (pick your favorite color), diced
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1 can pinto beans, drained
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, plus 1-2 tablespoons extra for garnish (optional)
For the Toppings
- 10 cups of Frito corn chips
- 2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 and 1/2 cups ice berg lettuce, chopped
- 2 and 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped
- 3/4 cup sour cream
- 1 generous cup of sliced scallions
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan or stock pot. Add the ground beef and let it brown while breaking it apart with a spatula or wooden spoon. Once it's released some of it's fat, go ahead and add the diced onion, minced garlic, and diced bell pepper and all of the spices. Let it all cook together for a few minutes until the ground beef is cooked through. Add in the pinto beans along with the water, tomato sauce, and cilantro. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Let the chili simmer for 30-40 minutes or until it starts to thicken.
- Next, the fun part: I like a lot of corn chips, so I fill a bowl with about 1 cup of the chips. Next I add about 1/2 cup of the chili, and then top it with some cheddar cheese (about a 1/4 cup), chopped lettuce (about a 1/4 cup), fresh diced tomatoes (1/4 cup), 2 tablespoons sour cream, a tablespoon of scallions, and a few sprinkles of chopped cilantro.