Laguna Burger – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Laguna Burger May Have An Albuquerque Address, But It’s Miles From the Duke City

19 June 2016: Fathers may get the short end of the stick when it comes to cards (card companies sell 133 million Mother’s Day cards annually, 40 million more than for Father’s Day), but when it comes to the annual Father’s Day dining ritual, dad’s make up for it.  That’s how it seemed when I walked into Laguna Burger and found the little restaurant overflowing with families feting their fathers.  What a great choice!  In each of the last two years Laguna Burger has been the most frequently visited post on Gil’s Thrilling…  If most of the visitors to the review actually also visit the restaurant, that’s tens of thousands of visitors to Laguna Burger.  On Father’s Day 2016, it seemed most of the fathers were there.

The history of New Mexico is fraught with tales of hardship and peril. Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as early settlers found out when, amidst the ravages of climatic extremes, they traversed austere terrain in search of wealth and a better life.  There were no interstate highways nor high-speed motorized conveyances to ferry them across the barren and cruel desert.  There were no hotels and motels in which they could rest their weary bones nor restaurants to quell the pangs of hunger and thirst which parched their throats.

Constructing a Laguna Burger is an art

The storied trails that brought settlers and traders to New Mexico, remnants of which have mostly disappeared over time, were scarcely more than ruts carved into the earth by wagons, horses and oxen.  History has glorified those trails–the Santa Fe, Butterfield and Camino Real among them–but the truth of their harshness is far from glamorous. One especially treacherous and dry section of El Camino Real was so brutal, it was designated by the Spanish conquistadores as the Jornada del Muerto, Spanish for “route of the dead man.”

The advent of the railroad system heralded the beginning of the end of the trail systems and made travel to and from New Mexico a more pleasant, far less hazardous adventure.  Today when people associate trails with New Mexico, it’s usually not with trepidation, but with respect and admiration.  Instead of such ominous names as Jornada Del Muerto, New Mexico’s trails are now bestowed such inviting sobriquets as The Turquoise Trail.  Instead of peril and woe, New Mexico’s trails are scenic and beautiful, providing a vast array of fun and recreational activities.

You’ll be asking yourself the same question: Is it the beef or is it the love?

In 2009, the word “trail” began to take on a new connotation.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author and the New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary liaison, conceptualized a “culinary trail” concept designed to capitalized on the widespread interest–both by locals and tourists–on the Land of Enchantment’s incomparable cuisine.  The inaugural culinary trail was the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a celebration of New Mexico’s iconic, some say unofficial and favorite, state food.

More than 8,000 people–residents, visitors, critics and restaurateurs–cast their ballots for their favorite green chile cheeseburgers.  When the ballots were tallied, the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail listed four dozen purveyors of green chile cheeseburgers from among the 200 or so nominated.  The Trail included burger bastions from Abiquiu to Zuni and from all four corners of the state.  Those burgers are prepared in restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and even bowling alleys.

Throngs of burger lovers line up for a world-famous Laguna Burger

One of green chile cheeseburger restaurants garnering the most votes was a superette (convenience store) with the intriguing name “Home of The Laguna Burger” (since shortened to “Laguna Burger.”)   Driving on I40 past the Pueblo of Laguna, I had seen signage for the burger, but dismissed it as just another promotion for the Pueblo’s popular casino. My mistake!

The Laguna Burger is simply one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico!  Cooked to order from 100 percent, never frozen ground beef (an 80/20 blend), it is a half-pound of pure deliciousness.  Today, there are three Homes of the Laguna Burger, the most recent addition strategically positioned directly across I40 from the Route 66 Casino.  Interestingly, it has an Albuquerque address (14311 Central Avenue).  As with its siblings, it is located within the confines of a superette.  Walk past the checkout counters and their temptations and you’ll find a diner-like space dedicated to the Laguna burger and several other menu items.

Every seat in the restaurant is occupied. Fortunately there’s an outdoor seating area.

Though the Laguna Burger is tiny (about eight bar stools and a small dining room for seating), the aromas of beef on a flattop grill waft throughout the large superette like an olfactory siren’s call.  After perusing the menu–which offers both lunch and dinner–and placing your order, find a seat.  The best seat in the house is probably on one of the bar stools where you can watch the green chile cheeseburger being lovingly prepared for you.

Yes, lovingly!  The shirts worn by the staff are emblazoned with the slogan, “Is it the beef or is it the love?”.  When Cheromiah Marshall (Google him) was manning the grill, you can be assured it was equal parts of both.  Cheromiah was as engaging and funny as any counter man in New Mexico.  He took great pride in the Laguna Burger, answering my questions with an impish grin–first giving me a comedic response then the actual answer.  Where does Laguna Burger get its beef?  From my uncle’s cows.  Where do you get your green chile?  From my uncle’s farm if the cows don’t eat it.  It is great fun.

The world-famous Laguna Burger with Fries

Cheromiah beamed with pride in telling me the Laguna Burger came in second at Governor Richardson’s inaugural green chile cheeseburger challenge and that it received more votes than any other purveyor of green chile cheeseburgers on the Trail.  When I informed him the restaurant which won the Governor’s challenge is now closed, he said, “now we’re the best.”  That claim is hard to dispute.  The Laguna Burger is outstanding!

As Cheromiah prepared my burger, another staffer shaped ground beef into rounded balls, weighing them to ensure each was exactly eight ounces (that’s half a pound, twice the beef of McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder).  Each burger is prepared to order; the Laguna Burger is not fast food.  At strategic intervals in the grilling process, the green chile (Bueno brand) is placed on the grill where it sizzles and spits as in protest.  The cheese is added later to ensure just the right level of meltedness.  The Laguna Burger is adorned with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mustard on a sesame seed bun.

Frito Pie

This is a perfectly seasoned burger.  The beef patty is juicy and delicious at about medium-well.  The vegetables are fresh–crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, lip pursing pickles, red onions.  The green chile, at least the batch I’ve had in three visits, was piquant enough to get my attention. It’s delicious through and through, so good you’ll want another, but so large you might not have the room.  That’s especially true if you also order the fresh-cut, never frozen French fries.  The fries, shades of gold and brown, are neither too flaccid nor too stiff.  They’re fries the way they should be made.

The Laguna Burger has a surprisingly large menu for operating in such a small space.  The menu includes foot long hot dogs and chili cheese dogs, corn dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches (on Texas toast), Frito pies, chicken tenders, onion rings, taquitos with salsa and more, but it would be very hard to pass up the Laguna Burger. 

Lest you think my opinion of the 66 Pit Stop: Home of the Laguna Burger is mine alone, read the glowing review from Hannah and Edward, Albuquerque’s podcasters nonpareil.  When Andrea Feucht was asked by The Guardian of London to list the top ten restaurants and cafes in Albuquerque, she listed the 66 Pit Stop, Home of the Laguna Burger as one of those ten.  By any standards, this diminutive purveyor of green chile cheeseburgers is a ten. 

Note: Even though the Home of the Laguna Burger at  the 66 Pit Stop has an Albuquerque address (14311 Central Avenue, N.W.), you won’t find it anywhere within the city’s urban sprawl.  To get there you’ll want to drive west on I-40 and take exit 114.  It’s directly across I-40 from the Route 66 Casino.

Laguna Burger
66 Pit Stop
14311 Central Avenue, NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site
| Facebook Page
(505) 352-7848
LATEST VISIT: 19 June 2016
1st VISIT: 15 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Frito Pie

66 Pit Stop Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Owl Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Owl Cafe on Eubank (northern view)

Shortly before 6AM. on July 16, 1945, some of the world’s most brilliant minds ushered in the nuclear age with the detonation of the first atomic bomb, an occasion which later prompted Los Alamos Laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer to declare “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”  The transformative event occurred in a dry, desolate locale approximately 35 miles from bucolic San Antonio, New Mexico, the gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  The scientists who developed the top-secret bomb had been staying nearby in cabins rented from J.E. Miera, proprietor of Miera’s Owl Bar and Cafe. 

Posing as “prospectors,” the scientists frequented Miera’s for enthusiastic card games, cold beer and grilled cheeseburgers. In time, Miera’s son Frank Chavez, began adorning the burgers with fiery-hot diced green chile, unwittingly inventing  what is now a sacrosanct New Mexico icon, the green chile cheeseburger.  Despite what other claimants may say, San Antonio’s Owl Cafe is the progenitor to what James Beard Award-winning writer (and former restaurant reviewer for The Alibi) Jason Sheehan described in 2011 as “America’s best cheeseburger.”  The green chile cheeseburger is all that and so much more.

Albuquerque’s most famous anthropomorphic restaurant (view from the south)

In the 1980s, Albuquerque entrepreneur Ski Martin purchased the franchise rights to the original Owl Cafe and in 1986 launched Albuquerque’s first Owl Cafe on Eubank just a couple blocks north of Interstate 40.  With an upscale urban 50s ambiance and an anthropomorphic architecture featuring garish neon pink and turquoise lights, this metropolitan version has a much more expansive menu than the original restaurant, featuring several other sandwiches, some comfort food entrees and several New Mexican entrees.  A complementary bowl of beans with San Antonio green chile (albeit spelled “chili”) after you’re seated is one of the highlights of dining at this Owl.  A dessert display case may just have you wanting to lick the glass.

The one thing that might detract from giving your burger the full attention and adulation it deserves is the boisterous and  crowded ambiance of the Eubank location.  Throngs of hungry diners queue up for one of the booths in the elongated diner-style restaurant; less fortunate patrons (and children who want to spin around in them) are seated on the disc-shaped bar stools at the restaurant’s center.  A 1950s style juke box (for Millennials, this is a coin-operated, partially automated music playing device that plays selected songs from a self-contained media) playing songs from bygone eras plays almost continuously.  Smaller tableside jukeboxes are also available if you want the music closer to you.

The diner-like ambiance of the Owl Cafe

Cheers went up when in 2004,  Martin partnered with Frank Marcello (partner in other Albuquerque restaurant ventures such as Copeland’s and Zea’s and founder of the eponymous Marcello’s Chophouse) to launch Albuquerque’s second Owl Cafe in the Shops at I-25.  In 2005, a third Owl Cafe opened on the West side (10131 Coors Blvd) where great burgers were (and still are) direly lacking. Alas, both satellites closed within two years.  Twenty years after its launch, Albuquerque’s sole remaining Owl Cafe is still going strong.  In April, 2016, it was featured on an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations.

Despite the more extensive menu offerings at the Eubank based Owl Cafe, the green chile cheeseburger is still the biggest attraction–and for good reason.  The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and the world famous San Antonio green chile) are absolutely fresh.  Ski Martin and his team of cooks prepare each and every burger the same way he learned to prepare them at the San Antonio parent restaurant.

Beans with Green Chile

On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns.  The meat positively breaks apart (a telltale sign that filler isn’t used) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair.  On occasion, the green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico.  Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right.  At other times, the green chile is barely noticeable and wouldn’t pose a bit of a threat to someone from, say, Mississippi.  Maybe that’s what happens when you commit the cardinal offense of spelling it “chili.”

In 2009, the Owl Cafe (irrespective of location) was selected for inclusion into the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys.  Though the green chile cheeseburger is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico, only 48 green chile cheeseburgers made it to this list.  The Owl was a repeat listing on the 2011 version of the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.   My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, rates the green chile cheeseburger at Albuquerque’s Owl as the fourth best in the Land of Enchantment.

Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger

While the dissolution of the marital institution seems to become more prevalent every year, there’s one marriage that has and probably will withstand the ravages of time–that’s the culinary union of the burger and French fries. The Owl Cafe serves fresh-cut French fries that are among the very best in the city.  Well salted and served with either red or green chile, these fries are fantastic.  Like many good fries, the potatoes aren’t peeled.  Perhaps even better are the sweet potato fries though you might just utter “fries be damned” if you opt for onion rings instead.  These thin-sliced, lightly coated rings are the antithesis of the overly breaded out-of-the-bag variety you’ll find at most restaurants.  The rings are served with a somewhat anemic horseradish sauce which could use more punch.

To make it a terrific triumvirate, order one of the Owl’s old-fashioned milk shakes or malts, both of which are thick, delicious and served cold.   Favorite flavors include chocolate, pineapple, strawberry, Oreo, vanilla and butterscotch. Malts and shakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin, the way they were made in the 50s. They’re then served in a shake glass with the tin on the side, much like getting a shake and a half.  No 50s era diner would be complete without phosphates and egg creams and the Owl makes these well.

Onion Rings

The New Mexican food menu includes many popular favorites including enchiladas, a combination plate, quesadillas and carne adovada (unfortunately made with cumin).  Mom’s favorite quesadilla is one of the very best of its genre in town.  Sandwiched between two grilled tortillas sliced pizza style are refried beans, two types of melted Cheddar cheese, bacon and green chile.  The refried beans are terrific with a smoky aftertaste perhaps ameliorated by the crisp bacon.  The quesadilla is served with plastic tubs of guacamole, salsa and sour cream.

The dessert case usually includes several pies–apple, blueberry, peach and pecan, for example.  These pies taste better than they look.  One of the things which makes them special is a thin, crispy and buttery crust.  The other is the fruit fillings–real fruit, not the gelatinous, over-sweetened gunk.  The blueberry actually tastes like blueberry.  The pies are best served warm and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Albuquerque Melt

22 May 2016: The sandwich menu includes all the “usual suspects” found at most self-respecting cafes and diners.  You’ll find grilled cheese done three different ways, club sandwiches, French dip, Reubens and even a cold meatloaf sandwich.  You’ll also find a classic patty melt and a chile-infused variation called the Albuquerque Melt (Swiss cheese, grilled onions and green chili on grilled rye).  New Mexicans know that green chile improves nearly every dish to which it is added, including several desserts.  You may not ever again want a patty melt sans green chile.  That’s how significant the improvement is.  It also helps that The Owl’s beef patties are perfectly seasoned, generously proportioned and prepared to a medium-well deliciousness.  The light rye bread lets bolder flavors shine–flavors such as the sweet, caramelized onions and the mild meltedness of the Swiss cheese.

22 May 2016: Hawaii’s contribution to America’s burgeoning hot dog culture is the Puka Dog (puka, in this case, having nothing to do with the hipster beads worn in the 70s).  Larry will be heartened to hear the puka dog does not include spam.   It does involve a hunk of sweet bread being impaled on a heated rod, effectively toasting it on the inside while leaving the outside soft.  The resultant hot dog shaped hole is filled with a grilled hot dog and a fruit relish (mango, pineapple, papaya, coconut and banana for example).   The Owl Cafe’s  Hawaiian Dog is loosely patterned on the puka dog.  Nestled into a more conventional toasted hot dog bun is a split hot dog topped with a mango-pineapple salsa.  It’s not always a given that “salsa” implies piquant.  This salsa is dessert sweet, contrasting the salty smokiness of the hot dog.  It’s a combination not everyone will appreciate, but one no diner should dismiss without trying.

Hawaiian Dog

The most adamant detractors (you know the type–averse to change of any kind even though their last visit to the San Antonio Owl was decades ago) contend this Northeast Heights restaurant probably shouldn’t even bear the name of the original classic.  Me, I think The Owl is very competitive in an increasingly better burger market.  When its chile is hot, the Owl rocks!

The Owl Cafe
800 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)291-4900
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chili Cheeseburger; French Fries; Chocolate Shake; Beans; Blueberry Pie ala mode; Mom’s Favorite Quesadilla; Albuquerque Melt; Onion Rings; Sweet Potato Fries; Hawaiian Dog

Owl Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Grassburger – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Grassburger for the very best in grass-fed burgers and so much more

For nearly a decade, television viewers have been subjected to a very successful advertising campaign depicting contented cows talking and singing about the pleasures of life in sunny and warm California. The slogan for the “happy cows” campaign’ is “Great cheese comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California.” The campaign would have you believe the cows are happy because they feast and frolic on a diet of delicious grass from verdant hillsides and not on troughs full of grains which don’t taste quite as good. I don’t know about cows being happier because they graze on grass, but can certainly attest to being a happier diner when enjoying a diet of grass-fed beef.

Generations of New Mexicans, particularly from the more verdurous northern villages, find the notion of grain-fed cattle heretical. All our cows are grass-fed thanks to open-range grazing laws which allow carefree cows to traipse up and down the streets in search of unfenced (or poorly fenced) yards in which the grass does appear to be greener. In the late spring when mountain snows have started to melt, many ranchers herd their cattle into the mountains where meadowlands near the timberline are abundant. In fall when the cows are returned, they’re more corpulent, their fatted frames more ready for winter’s angry bite.

Diners line up to place their order

For the first nineteen years of my life, virtually all the beef my family consumed was grass-fed. I was well into my teenage years before the first burger from the legendary McDonald’s crossed my lips. Despite the enthusiastic build-up on commercials aired by the three stations (KOB, KGGM, KOAT) picked up by our rooftop antenna back in the dark ages, the burger—especially the beef—was a huge disappointment. It was obvious the “beef” on my inaugural Big Mac wasn’t raised on high mountain pastureland. It didn’t have the rich, earthy-grassy flavor of grass-fed beef to which we were accustomed and it wasn’t nearly as lean and juicy. The difference was more than just discernible, it was significant.

Alas, most of the beef we’ve had since leaving Penasco has been of the grain-fed supermarket variety. Though we’ve become accustomed to it, it’s always a treat to partake of grass-fed beef. When we heard a new Durango-based hamburger restaurant by the name “Grassburger” had launched in Albuquerque’s Far Northeast Heights, my Kim thought she’d read my snarky little mind. She bet me a burger my review would center on another meaning for the word “grass,” a meaning our neighbors in the great state of Colorado use synonymously with a very popular, recently-made-legal cash crop that’s not fed to cattle. She even suggested I incorporate one of Colorado’s nicknames on my review—the “highest state.”

Chocolate Shake and Blackberry Soda

Though my Kim lost our bet, we both won. Grassburger is the real deal, a proud purveyor of 100-percent grass-fed beef procured from Rain Crow Ranch in Missouri, a haven for happy, humanely-raised, healthy cows. Grass-fed beef has all the qualities health-conscious diners value and the flavor burger aficionados crave. Not only does grass-fed beef have a lower fat content than its more heavily marbled grain-fed bovine brethren, it’s got a greater nutritional value and is replete with healthy Omega-3s, antioxidants and vitamins. Unlike grain-fed cattle which are confined to pens and fed a diet rich in corn (much of which is genetically modified), grass-fed cattle spend their lives feasting on hay in winter and fresh grass in the summer before heading to market.

There are five burgers on the Grassburger menu including a black bean burger sure to please vegans and a green chile cheeseburger New Mexicans will love. At the risk of being accused of snarkiness, the green chile is certified New Mexican true and through. It’s not that stuff Coloradoans call green chile. All burgers are served with lettuce, tomato, pickles, raw onion and Grassburger’s signature chipotle mayo on a potato bun. There are several add-ons for diners who wish to build their own burgers. Burgers are available in single- or double-beef sizes and are formed into four-ounce patties with an 80/20 mix of meat and fat.

Double Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Also on the menu is a farm-fresh farm salad constructed from seasonal greens and fresh vegetables and served with your choice of house-made, gluten-free dressings (lemon vinaigrette, tahini, buttermilk ranch). Three “like a grilled cheese, but way better” cheese melts offer a beef-free alternative to burgers. The menu also includes a BLT, a chicken hot dog and a house-made green chile stew made with 100% grass-fed beef and New Mexico green chile. Vanilla and chocolate ice cream shakes and floats are available as are Boylan’s fountain sodas in several handcrafted flavors (the black cherry and root beer are fantastic). Naturally you can’t have burgers without fries. Grassburger offers hand-cut sweet potato or russet potato fries made from potatoes grown in the region.

The green chile cheeseburger is…(drumroll please) outstanding! Order a double to maximize your enjoyment of the grass-fed beef which is griddled to about medium-well and has a discernible char. Though leaner and less marbled than grain-fed beef, the Grassburger is moist, rich and absolutely delicious. We went through so many napkins, it brought to mind Wendy’s “Hot and Juicy” commercials from the 1970s. Any piquancy (and there isn’t much of it) is as much courtesy of the chipotle mayo as it is the green chile. Other ingredients (tomato, lettuce, pickles, raw onion) are fresh and crisp. The potato bun is sweet and moist, a perfect canvas for a superb, high-quality burger. Though hand-cut, the potatoes didn’t do much for us.

Another view of the double green chile cheeseburger

Grassburger is the first expansion market for the Durango-based operation. It’s located at the Heights Village on Montgomery just east of Juan Tabo. It’s a destination all grass-fed beef aficionados and burger lovers should program onto their GPS navigation systems.  Now, if only they served grass-fed steak.

Grassburger
11225 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 200-0571
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 March 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Boylan’s Fountain Sodas, Chocolate Shake, French Fries

Grassburger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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