Back when I was a tween, in a time before the word “tween” had entered the general lexicon, arcades could be found in every shopping and strip mall and the sound of a change machine dispensing quarters could be heard throughout the land. Bad dudes were rescuing the President from ninjas, and Italian plumbers were saving princesses from gorillas, but nobody ever thought that the arcades themselves would need to be rescued. By the mid 90’s the cold winds of the Fimbul winter were blowing amongst the pinball machines and game cabinets as Ragnarock approached.
With video game consoles becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous in homes, fewer and fewer kids braved the wild arcades with their quarters and the mighty edifices slowly began to die out. Where there used to be one in every mall, they began disappearing with games only appearing in bowling alleys and movie theaters. Indeed the institution of the arcade could have gone the way of the dodo or thylacine if not for two things: nostalgia and booze.
All those kids who grew up enjoying arcades in their youth finally reached drinking age and found that something was lacking in their hearts, namely a place to play video games where they could also drink. Thus entered the dawn of the age of the arcade bar. Is there a better way to enjoy the nostalgia of childhood than with a beer in your hand? Yes, and it’s with a beer in the cup holder built into the arcade cabinet of the game you’re playing, the same game you played as a kid.
Enter Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade. This Portland staple isn’t so much a Dream of the 90’s as a Dream of the 90’s as seen through the eyes of Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin Flynn from TRON. Founded as an arcade in 1999 and converting to an arcade bar in 2003, as it enters the tenth year of operation Ground Kontrol is consistently reviewed as one of the top video gaming and drinking establishments in the US. In addition to more than 60 arcade games and 27 pinball machines they also offer stand up comedy nights, Rock Band competitions, Video Game trivia nights, and live music, in addition to the bar and food of course. Only a fool would venture to Portland without stopping by, and mama didn’t raise no fool.
When they credited TRON as being an inspiration for the decor, they weren’t kidding. Combining the number of machines from Jeff Bridge’s arcade at the beginning of the film with the lighting scheme from his computer program later in the film, plus throw in a few multisided dice shaped ceiling lights that would make any D&D player proud, and you have ambiance to die for. But I hadn’t come all this way for the interior design, so I sat down at an illuminated table that puts the bar from The Shining to shame, ordered some nachos, and sat back, loosening my belt, to enjoy.
been to a lot of restaurants in a lot of towns and most of them have a
nacho dish. Occasionally you’ll find a place with two dishes, and very
rarely a Mexican place with three, but forget those lame places. Not
one, two, three, or four, Ground Kontrol is the only place I’ve seen
featuring five different types of nachos. Five! Per their menu “Ground
Kontrol’s signature item, these are nacho ordinary nachos!”, and while a
“nacho”/”not your” joke usually completely turns me off, the fact that
there were so many choices (with vegan/gluten-free options for almost
all) made me unable to harden my heart for long. I went straight down
the menu and ordered one of each...
Straight off the bat, the chips are delicious. They’re locally made so there’s a little bit of that Portland magic in every one of them, and the fact that they didn’t spend a month in a bag being shipped from somewhere across the country probably helps as well. Chili Nachos, which these are at heart, live or die on the taste of the chili. I’m a huge fan of chili, and of course nachos, but not when they are combined, however these nachos surpassed all expectations and were quite good.
I don’t know if it was the chili, jalapenos, spicy cheese, or a demonic mixture of the three, but this is a deceptively spicy little order. When you’re in the nacho business you’ve had more than your fair share of spicy cheese, jalapenos, even the odd habanero, so it’s rare you’re surprised by something that doesn’t look like it should have much of a kick to it. It’s not going to knock you on your ass or anything, but your mouth is definitely aware that it’s eating something pleasantly spicy.
I’ve got one complaint it’s that the ratio of toppings to chips was
off, in there were not enough of the latter to successfully eat the
former. This is of course better than having too many chips and not
enough toppings, even when you have excellent chips like these, but when
you’ve got a pile of tasty stuff on the bottom of the plate and no
chips to get them into your mouth it makes one very sad. And your
fingers very messy. Nacho Fingers are a serious problem that only a proper topping to chip ratio can fix.
I’d describe these nachos as being worthy of U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon, but as Gunsmoke has been off the air for almost forty years now it wouldn’t mean anything to most people. The first thing you are going to notice about these bad boys is that you’ll smell the BBQ sauce before you even see them being brought to the table. That’s hyperbole of course, but not by much as the smell is going to get your tastebuds going the second they’re put down in front of you.
You may have had BBQ chicken or BBQ pork nachos, but the closest thing I’d compare these to are BBQ bacon nachos. Since bacon is all the rage these days nobody should have a problem with that, and if you do maybe these aren’t the nachos for you. Combine that BBQ bacon flavor with onions, pepperoncinis and pepperjack cheese and you’ve got the most unique mix of tastes of all the nachos there. Would I go so far as to say that these are my favorite nachos at Ground Kontrol and some of the best I’ve had anywhere? Yes, yes I would.
Here we have the most controversial entry in Ground Kontrol’s pantheon of nachos, the Cowabunga Nachos. Are they nachos? Are they pizza? What would the brothers Ninja Turtle think about these? They are basically slices of Mexican pizza, but on flatbread, lending them a nachoesque air in the same way that the Single Serving Nacho is kind of nachoesque. As singular slices of Mexican pizza, they are delicious, but are they nachos?
Sadly, as good as these are, and they are good, I don’t think I can in good conscience call these puppies nachos. The best I can do would be to call them a form of chip and dip, and as we all know chips and dip are not nachos. If they were a big pile of flatbread covered in toppings that would be something, but with as they are now I’ve got to classify them as delicious, but not nachos. Just because they’re awesome and look, and probably taste, similar you wouldn’t call a platypus a duck. A duck is a bird, a platypus is a mammal. And a monotreme. And venomous. Man, they’re weird.
These are their only nachos that aren’t available in a gluten-free form. Folks with Coeliac disease, you don’t know what you’re missing. Well, you can imagine what you’re missing, but you just can’t eat them. Or rather shouldn’t eat them. I guess depending on the particular temperament of your small intestine you totally could if you wanted to risk it, but I’ll leave that decision up to you. They’re good, but you may not want to risk it.
The Frito pie is a true American classic whose true origins are shrouded in mystery, with tales of it going back as far as the founding of the Frito-Lay company itself. Their first on the record mention was in the official Frito-Lay cookbook released in the 1950’s, but there were whispered rumors that Daisy Dean Doolin, the mother of company founder Elmer Doolin, was making Frito pies back as far as 1932. This of course predates the official Ignacio Anayan Nacho by more than 10 years and is quite the topic of almost theological dissention in the nacho community, but I won’t get into that here.
While cooking the Fritos and chili in a casserole dish is one option for making a Frito pie, Ground Kontrol goes for the more popular served in the Frito bag version, known as the Frito Boat, Walking Taco, or Taco in a Bag. Having had naught but a few Frito pies and never one right out of the bag this was an awesome and novel thing to behold. As for the flavor, since the taste of Fritos is standardized, much like the chili nachos their quality hinges entirely on the chili and cheese toppings. Fortunately their chili and spicy cheese are both top notch, so as long as you like Fritos these will hit your spot. However, when you have the option of four (Three if you don’t include Cowabunga Nachos) more uncommon nachos, who would go for so common dish? Probably the same people who only order vanilla ice cream, or people who REALLY love Frito pie.
There was unfortunately one type of nachos I wasn’t able to experience, the Classic Nachos. The human stomach only holds 2 to 4 liters of food and I had just eaten four orders totalling probably 5+ liters of chippy goodness, so cut me some slack here. Rumor has it that they’re served ballpark style featuring their tortilla chips with a side of their spicy cheese like your typical Concession Nachos. I don’t like to make judgements on nachos I have not sampled, but I have had their chips, which are tasty, and their spicy cheese, which is also tasty, so I’m sure these are fine. Again though, why get nachos when you could get fancy ones instead? If you could get a hamburger or a unicornburger, why would you get the hamburger?
Do you have more questions about Ground Kontrol or their nachos? Well so did I! I sat down (Metaphorically of course, it was via email communique) with Manager Art Santana to get a peek behind “The Chip Curtain” and see how the nachos were made...
N: Most places typically have only one, maybe two different kinds of nachos. Ground Kontrol has five different kinds. How did the idea of making nachos your signature item come about?
AS: When we installed a kitchen during our remodel, we knew we would have extremely limited space in which to craft tasty food for our customers. We wanted to focus on food items that didn't require a lot of equipment or space to prepare, and we found that our kitchen manager could make a fantastic batch of salsa and knew a thing or two about nachos. Nachos are great vehicles for all kinds of awesome toppings, and we knew we wanted to offer the basics but also lots of creative options. They're also great for sharing, so when you're sitting around having drinks with friends, no one's too far from a snack.
N: Of your five kinds, which is the best selling?
AS: Our most popular nacho-based item are the Killer Nachos, which come loaded with chili, spicy cheese, onions, olives, jalapeños, salsa & sour cream over locally-made tortilla chips. We make our chili and salsa from scratch, and our spicy cheese blend is our kitchen manager's specialty.
N: Menu items such as "King Hippo" and "D.K. Dessert Dog" clearly stick out as video game references. What was the reasoning behind naming some, but not all, after classic games?
AS: Some items start out as specials, and a catchy/clever video game-inspired name always helps with promoting a special offering. The King Hippo started out as a special menu item that was such a hit (no pun intended), we knew we had to add it to our regular menu. Generally, we like having fun with our menu, so we're always going to try to tie video game or pinball culture to something that would typically have a more conventional name. Sometimes, though, it just makes sense to keep it simple. For example, the Super Pretzel is just that - like a regular pretzel, but super!
N: The "Cowabunga Nachos" are definitely one of the more unique nachos I've eaten. What was the decision to list them as nachos as opposed to something like pizza dippers along the lines of a pita/hummus and including them in another food section?
AS: Some part of me wants to remember that there was a discussion of what kind of nachos the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would eat, and the decision being made that it would be as close to pizza as possible while still being delicious to dip into cheese. Something like that!
N: All your nachos include a "veganize" option, and almost all are gluten-free. How popular are these options?
AS: "Veganizing" is pretty popular! Portland is very accommodating to vegetarians and vegans, and we wanted to be accommodating too without compromising the deliciousness of our food. I've been vegan for a long time and one of our owners is a vegetarian and gluten-free, so we personally appreciated being able to offer genuine options to people. Our gluten-free customers are out there and we see that need steadily growing, so we wanted to label those items clearly and offer options whenever possible. It's really lame when you sit down with a group of friends for a snack or a meal and you're the only one that can't find a good food option!
N: What is your personal favorite nacho type?
AS: My personal favorite is definitely the veganized Killer Nachos, with our housemade cashew "cheeze" sauce instead of spicy nacho cheese. The veganized Gunsmoke Nachos are pretty awesome, too - sweet, smoky and spicy!
N: Would you put a Polybius cabinet in the bar if you had access to one?
AS: What do you mean, "if"?
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So there you have it. It’s not quite the arcade experience you had as a child, it’s better. If you love nachos, you’re covered. If you like classic arcade games and pinball, you’re covered. If you like video game trivia (Which was going on while I was eating nachos, and I did terribly at) you’re covered. If you like drinking with Portlanders, you’re covered. If you want to feel like you’re in TRON or TRON LEGACY, you’re covered. So bring your quarters, bring your love of nachos, and bring your hunger, Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade has you covered, or, dare I say, everything under kontrol.