Toro Burger – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Toro Burger in Rio Rancho

While watching a “sanitized for television” version of the audacious satirical comedy Blazing Saddles, my precocious six-year-old niece asked several questions with deep sociological implications: “Why is everyone in the town of Rock Ridge named Johnson? Why were all the town’s citizens white?” From her silence, you’d think my Kim was a “perp lawyering up” at a police inquiry. Rather than responding herself, she enjoyed seeing my brother and I hem and haw in trying to give accurate and age-appropriate answers. Far easier to answer were Blazing Saddles questions which inspired nostalgic reflection: “Is there a Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Albuquerque? Does Howard Johnson’s really serve only one flavor?”

For those of us who grew up in the dark ages, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were almost as ubiquitous as McDonald’s are today. During its halcyon days (peaking in 1975), more than 1,000 “Ho Jo’s” restaurants and motor lodges dotted the American landscape, their distinctive orange roofs a familiar beacon for hungry sojourners. Among the restaurants’ culinary draws were its 28 flavors of butterfat-enhanced ice cream and fried clam strips, an exotic offering theretofore available only in New England. The Marriott Corporation’s 1982 acquisition of all Howard Johnson’s properties signaled the precipitous beginning of the end of the once popular and profitable restaurant. Today, a sole remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant (in Lake George, New York) remains from among more than 1,000 original restaurants.

Toro’s Welcoming Dining Room

Having returned to the Land of Enchantment in 1979 after a two-year Air Force assignment to Massachusetts, this inveterate fried clam aficionado craved the plump, intensely-flavored paragons of deliciousness. Only Howard Johnson’s provided an approximation, albeit waifishly thin, desiccated strips (sorry Bob) vastly inferior to the tender, juicy whole bellied clams available seaside throughout New England. Despite having to settle for crummy clams, Howard Johnson’s became a frequent stop, a milieu of memories.  When the Albuquerque Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Eubank gave up the ghost in the early 1980s, I mourned.  Where now would fried clams be found?

When Mary Ann Schaefer, a long-time friend of this blog wrote to tell me about the Toro Burger Bar in Rio Rancho’s Howard Johnson hotel, it wasn’t the prospect of juicy, beefy burgers which came to mind, but my beloved fried clams.  Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the burgers would be the impetus for a visit.  We hadn’t visited the hotel since it housed Wine and Roses, a rather good German restaurant.  That was more than a decade ago when the hotel was the Inn at Rio Rancho.  The Inn became a Howard Johnson’s property in 2014.

Chile Cheese Fries

Since Wine and Roses shuttered its doors so many years ago, a number of restaurant concepts gave it the old college try in the Inn’s restaurant space but none had the staying power engendered by customer loyalty.  The seemingly du jour concept during the conversion from Inn at Rio Rancho to Howard Johnson’s was the Toro Bar and Grill which offered dinner service seven days a week.  It garnered the same level of enthusiasm as another tumbleweed rolling onto the street.  We surmised the name change to Toro Burger was just a rebranding-repackaging effort offering the same uninspiring fare.  Boy were we wrong!

Toro Burger is a terrific restaurant, one every burger aficionado in the metropolitan area should visit.  Ryan, an inventive Indiana born-and-bred chef has suffused the menu with some of the most superb and innovative burgers in the Land of Enchantment.   Chef Ryan’s previous gig in New Mexico was at Annapurna.  Now he’s doing his own thing and creating culinary magic.   You’ll be hard-pressed to decide which burger or sandwich to order, so tempting are the choices.  Even better, the beef is ground daily on the premises from three different cuts of steak.  That means superior burgers!  All burgers come with your choice of patty–house ground beef, turkey, veggie, chorizo-beef blend or lamb–on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger sauce (unless noted) and your choice of side.  You can also ask for your burger to be wrapped in a flour tortilla.

Fried Pickles

Before rushing out the door to get your burger fix, you should know that Toro is open only from 5PM through 10PM Tuesday through Saturday.  Much as you’d love to have one of Toro’s fabulous burgers for lunch, you’ll appreciate the reason for the restaurant’s limited hours.  Not only does Chef Ryan prepare everything to order, he spends a lot of time sourcing fresh ingredients, grinding the beef, creating sauces and even curing and smoking the restaurant’s bacon and pastrami.  That pastrami is cured for 18 days then smoked for another 12 to 16 hours.    The bacon undergoes a similar meticulous hands-on curing and smoking process.  These are the difference-makers, the reasons burgerphiles will return often.

The menu is another reason.  To get you started, you can select from one of six appetizers, three soft tacos (ground beef, adobado chicken, blackened tilapia) or four salads.  Be cautioned that the appetizers are generously portioned and you’ll want lots of room for those burgers.  There are twelve highly imaginative burgers on the menu as well as a build-your-own-burger option with seemingly unlimited options considering you can choose your meat, cheese (seven choices), veggies (eight choices) and sauces (eleven choices).  It’s a mad burger scientist’s dream!  There are three entrees on the menu: catfish dinner, New Mexico hot chicken and beef ribs.  There are also ten sandwich options, each intriguing.  All sandwiches include your choice of side.  If you’re not already planning a visit, I haven’t done my job well.  If the burgers are any indication, you should rush right over!

Jack and Dianne Burger with Onion Things

18 November 2016: When we ordered our appetizers we had no idea how generously portioned they’d be.  An order of chile cheese fries rewarded us with a mountain of house-cut fries and a generous sprinkling of New Mexico green chile with a cheese blend dousing and Ranch dressing on the side.  The green chile has a pleasant piquancy–enough heat for me to notice and for my Kim to call it “hot.”  Anytime you can find house-cut fries, you should jump on them.  Infinitely better than out-of-a-bag fries, these golden planks of salty deliciousness are terrific repositories for cheese and green chile.

18 November 2016: Our server, the ambassadorial and indefatigable James recommended the fried pickles, one of the more popular appetizers on the menu.  Served with a ramekin of Ranch dressing (ask for one with blue cheese, too) is a pile of thinly sliced, lightly breaded dill pickles which would really purse your lips were it not for the breading.  In our eight years down South (on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), we never received such a generous portion of fried pickles as we did during our inaugural visit to Toro Burger.  We wound up taking half of them home and found them as delightful the next day as we did when they first graced our table.

Mo’ Better Burger with Fries

18 November 2016: Until just before we placed our order, I fully intended to order what Mary Ann’s hubby had enjoyed so much–the Toro burger (Hatch green chile, house made bacon, cheese and chipotle aoli), but perusing a full-sized menu instead of one online gave us new perspective on just how inventive Toro’s burgers are.  If, like me, you enjoy flavor combinations that pair disparate (sweet and savory, tangy and piquant, etc.) taste profiles, you’ll love the Mo’ Better Burger (grilled pineapple jam, house-made bacon and Sriracha aioli) which teases and tantalizes every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  While the combination of pineapples and bacon has long been exploited on pizza, we found it to be tailor-made for burgers, too.  The bacon has a wonderful smokiness paired with a sweet-peppery element that renders it positively addictive.  One taste of the pineapple jam and your imagination will conjure up all the different ways you can enjoy it.

18 November 2016: My Kim’s choice was a slightly modified Jack and Dianne (which she ordered not because she likes the John Mellencamp song by that name) which comes standard with sauteed garlic mushrooms and Jack cheese.  Kim asked that the Jack cheese be eighty-sixed and substituted grilled onions instead.  The last trade that good was when the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta for a song and dance.  There’s something almost magical about earthy garlic-infused mushrooms paired with sweet, almost caramelized onions.  Lest I forget, the beef is of superior caliber, a delicious, nicely seasoned patty of about six-ounces.  Burgers at Toro are so good you can dispense with mustard and ketchup.

Travis Pastrami

19 November 2016: So impressed were we after our inaugural visit that we couldn’t wait to return.  It took us only one day to make like McArthur.  To avoid marital strife, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would order the pastrami sandwich (Kim wins so many coin tosses she must have a two-headed coin).  Called the Travis Pastrami, the sandwich is constructed on grilled light rye bread smeared with hot mustard and piled generously with the housemade pastrami about which James, our affable guide had waxed poetic.  The sandwich comes standard with sauerkraut, but Kim opted to have it on the side.  As with all great pastrami, this one’s got plenty of marbling.  That’s where so much of the flavor comes from. Well, that a meticulous, painstakingly monitored brining, curing, smoking process.  It’s obvious Chef Ryan knows what he’s doing.  Only at Joe Rodriguez’s California Pastrami will you find pastrami this good. 

19 November 2016: Our inaugural visit taught us to be more judicious about ordering appetizers. Instead of, for example, ordering an overly generous platter of chile cheese fries and risk being near-full when entrees arrive, opt for the pulled pork sliders (three slow-cooked pulled pork sliders with a red chile BBQ sauce and house slaw).  Tender tendrils of pork nestled between pillowy soft bread rolls is just the beginning.  The red chile BBQ sauce is more tangy than it is piquant, but it infuses the pork with a delightful liveliness.  Ditto for the coleslaw which imparts tangy, creamy notes. There’s only one thing wrong with these sliders–you’ll want at least two (or eight) more.

Pulled Pork Sliders

19 November 2016: Having lost the coin flip and thus the opportunity to order the pastrami sandwich didn’t make me a Miss Congeniality.  There are just too many terrific options on the menu, each one a winner.  James recommended the catfish dinner (buttermilk soaked fried catfish fingers tossed in a spicy cornmeal dredge and served with house-cut fries, slaw and a roasted corn tartar sauce).  Who would have thought Rio Rancho would become my go-to destination for catfish–first at K’Lynn’s Cuisine and now at Toro Burger?  The two planks of catfish placed gently atop a haystack-sized pile of French fries are terrific–light, flaky and delicate with a bit of personality courtesy of a spice blend.  Dip the catfish into the roasted corn tartar and the flavor profile changes altogether.  This is the tartar sauce for those of us who don’t like tartar sauce courtesy of sweet corn niblets that serve as a nice foil to other savory elements.

Catfish Dinner

18 November 2016: Even among the most creative and experienced chefs, desserts are often a challenge, one usually left to an assistant or pastry chef.  Chef Ryan may be just as adept at desserts as he is with savory elements.  As with everything that comes out of his kitchen, there’s plenty of imagination in every dish.  There’s also quite a bit of magic.  Our introduction to his prowess with postprandial aspects of a meal was with a crustless cheesecake.  Well, there is a crust, but it’s not Graham crackers or anything of the like.  This “crust” is comprised of thinly sliced red apples atop of which rests a molded round cheesecake topped with a green chile compote punctuated by more thin apple slices.  The green chile compote has both piquant and sweet elements, a perfect foil for the tangy apples and even sweeter cheesecake.  We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this masterpiece.

Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote

19 November 2016: We weren’t surprised at how much we enjoyed Chef Ryan’s housemade ice cream sandwich.  Now, this one does have a Graham cracker crust which sandwiches a layer of chocolate ganache and a thick wedge of chocolate ice cream.  The ice cream sandwich arrives at your table in a frozen state.  You’ll be advised to let it sit for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.  Would that we had such discipline.  No sooner had it arrived at our table than we began to gnaw on it.  Our sole complaint about this delightful ice cream treat is how small it is–maybe four inches.  It’s not the ice cream sandwich behemoth you’ll find at Rude Boy Cookies, but it’s just as good.

Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich

Ice Cream Sandwich

19 November 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, will be happy to hear Toro Burger’s dessert menu includes a bread pudding, perhaps one worthy of inclusion on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  This particular bread pudding, resplendent with the presence of sweet-tangy peaches and topped with a vanilla icing is reminiscent of peach cobbler, albeit just a bit sweeter.  Though some might consider them anachronistic, bread pudding and cobbler are two of my very favorite desserts and for some of the same reasons.  What we enjoyed most about Toro’s rendition is the interplay of different flavors to compose a cohesive, absolutely delicious whole.  Next time, however, we may ask for the green chile compote instead of the vanilla icing.

Peach Bread Pudding

Peach Bread Pudding

If you visited any one of Toro Burger’s predecessors at the Rio Rancho Howard Johnson’s, you likely weren’t very impressed.  Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Toro Burger.   It’s better…much better.  Chef Ryan’s burger creations are not to be missed and you’ll be well taken care of by James, the restaurant’s whirling dervish server whose recommendations you can take to the bank.

Toro Burger
1465 Rio Rancho Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1700
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Cheese Fries, Fried Pickles, Jack and Dianne Burger, Mo’ Better Burger, Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote, Peach Bread Pudding, Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich, Pulled Pork Sliders, Catfish Dinner, Travis Pastrami, French Fries, Onion Things

Toro Burger Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pete’s Frites – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pete’s Frites on Route 66 in the Nob Hill district

You might view my friend Schuyler’s insistence that his favorite vegetables are French fries, salsa and pizza as a fallacious premise, a non-sequitur fraught with absurdity. French fries are made from potatoes (botanically classified as a vegetable) so categorizing fries as a vegetable might not be a stretch, but pizza? How, you might ask, could any reasoning adult possibly consider pizza a vegetable? Schuyler’s argument is inspired from the beloved 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. When ordered by the court to submit authoritative proof that Mr. Kringle is the one-and-only Santa Claus, Kringle’s lawyer Fred Gailey produced dozens of mailbags brimming with letters addressed to Santa Claus in care of the courthouse. Overwhelmed with this authoritative proof, the judge responded “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, the court will not dispute it.”

By now you’ve probably surmised that Schuyler must have uncovered authoritative proof in the form of a governmental declaration that French fries, pizza and salsa are vegetables.  Indeed he has.  He points out that in 2011, the United States Congress passed a bill that allows pizza and French fries to remain on federally funded school lunch menus, essentially declaring that anything containing two tablespoons of tomato sauce (such as pizza and salsa) can be labeled a vegetable.  In truth, Schuyler doesn’t really subscribe to that (or almost any) Congressional premise. Being a cynic (or maybe wiser than us all), he believes decisions such as considering pizza a vegetable prove government is a Kakistocracy (the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified and unprincipled citizens in power).

Interior of Pete’s Frites

But he does love French fries..and he’d fight to the death to defend your right to eat them.  He’s not the only one.  Americans consume some two-million tons of French fries every year, an average of nearly thirty pounds per red-blooded American.  About seven percent of the potatoes grown in the fruited plain end up being sold by McDonald’s which sells more than one-third of all the French fries hawked in restaurants across the United States each year. In the early 1990s, as you may remember, McDonald’s acceded to customer demand for less saturated fat and converted the oil in which it prepares its French fries–from beef tallow to a “vegetable oil” amalgam.

Not everyone appreciated this change.  Schuyler certainly didn’t and neither did television chef and author Julia Child who did more than anyone else in the culinary arena to demystify sophisticated French cuisine for mainstream Americans.  Here’s what she had this to say about McDonald’s French fries:  “When they first started out, their French fries were very good.  And then the nutritionists got at them.  It turned out to be erroneous that tallow fat was bad and lard was bad and so forth.  So they changed it to some kind of nutritionist oil and they’ve been kind of limp ever since.  I never really eat them which is too bad and I always am very strong about criticizing, hoping maybe they’ll change.”

Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger with Fries and Garlic Aioli

While it’s probably too late for McDonald’s, Schuyler will be happy to read about an Albuquerque restaurant which hasn’t (as he would term it) “succumbed to pressure from nutritional Nazis.”  That restaurant is Pete’s Frites whose Facebook page proudly boasts “I think our fries are pretty special. We take a lot of time and pain in preparing them. We also have our not so secret oil, beef tallow, that takes them over the top.”  Schuyler will also be happy to learn that Pete’s Frites has the “Break the Chain” seal of approval from my friend Ryan Scott, one of my most trusted sources for recommendations on where to go (no, not in that way) and what to eat.

In between bites Ryan texted me to let me know about his latest find, a Santa Fe food truck turned brick-and-mortar enterprise on Nob Hill occupying the former home of Restaurant: Impossible alum Shade Tree Customs & Cafe just west of Carlisle.  He described it as “really, really good…worth a Gil review.”  Ryan’s not a man prone to hyperbole unless discussing the Denver Broncos or Texas barbecue, so when he uses “really more than once as a modifier for “good,” you can bet Pete’s Frites are almost as good as a Trevor Siemian touchdown.

Thrice Cooked Fries: More Than Twice As Nice!

Launched in September, 2016, Pete’s Frites specializes in the second part of its marquee–“frites” which you may know is what French fries are called in France and Belgium.  You wouldn’t expect a restaurant named Pete’s Frites to use some homogeneous out-of-a-bag fries.  Instead, Pete’s hand peels and cuts its potatoes daily then triple cooks them in the aforementioned beef tallow to achieve perfect Belgian-style frites.  Pete’s Web site boasts of house-cut fries which is “crunchy on the outside and mashed potatoey on the inside.”  Each frites order comes with one homemade specialty sauce: mayonnaise housemade with lemon; aioli, mayo for garlic lovers; spicy mayo with habanero-based pili pili sauce; spicy ketchup with a kick; and fry sauce (Ketchup and house-made mayo).

Few restaurants across the Duke City serve truly memorable fries worthy of adulation and certainly not worth an extra half-an-hour or more on the treadmill. Until Pete’s Frites, there hasn’t been a single restaurant intrepid enough to showcase French fries as its featured fare. So, does triple-cooking in beef tallow make that much of a difference? Absolutely! The time-intensive process is scientific in its approach, but artful in its delivery. Quite simply these are the very best frites (or fries if you prefer) in the metropolitan area, delivered as promised with a delightful crispy-crunchiness on the outside and cloud-like fluffiness on the inside. You’ll run out of the housemade sauce (the aioli is terrific) before you run out of fries, but these fries stand out on their own, needing absolutely no amelioration.

Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger with Green Chile

Much as he loved the fries, it was the burger which excited Ryan most. Pete’s boasts of premium, all-natural New Mexican beef with no hormones and antibiotics. Best of all, the proprietary blend with a beauteous balance of fat and lean is ground daily on the premises. Complimentary toppings include lettuce, onion and tomato, but for a pittance you can add Cheddar or American cheese and (or) green chile. Each burger is prepared “smash style” which means the beef is mashed onto the grill, a process which often leads to desiccated burgers. Not so at Pete’s Frites where each burger is a multi-napkin, chin-drenching affair. Bun integrity goes out the window if you order a double patty burger which is “release the floodgates” juicy. Four-ounces of beef make up a single patty burger.

Ryan recommended an “Oklahoma-style” smash burger (not on the menu) which I assumed was prepared in the manner made famous by Johnnie’s Grill in El Reno, Oklahoma. At Johnnie’s, a spatula wielding grill cook obviously well practiced in the craft mashes thinly sliced yellow onions with raw, thin, hand-formed patties, alternately grilling each side to ensure uniformity of onion dispersion. Caramelized onions adhering to the meat patty are then placed on a bun. Pete’s version is more akin to lots of grilled onions atop the beef patty. That’s a good way to go, too. Pete came out of the kitchen to ask if the green chile was too hot (you may as well ask the devil if Hell is too hot). For this volcano-eater, the green chile had a pleasant piquancy, but was certainly not too hot. Your opinion, of course, may differ.

Pete apprised me that the menu will be expanding soon with more options coming. Apparently diners can’t live on fries alone…though Pete’s are so good, you just might be willing to try, but then you’d miss out on a superb burger. You don’t want to miss out on the Pete’s Frites experience!

Pete’s Frites
3407 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 200-0661
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT:
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frites, Oklahoma-Style Smash Burger

Pete's Frites Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Shake Foundation – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Shake Foundation in Santa Fe (front view)

If it seems there’s a glut of restaurants brandishing a much-hyped and often self-glossed as “best” version of New Mexico’s fabled green chile cheeseburger, it won’t surprise you to read that yet another purveyor of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct sandwich entered the fray in January, 2014.  What might surprise you is its most worthy motto and raison d’etre:  “Dedicated to the preservation of the original green chile cheeseburger.” Just what exactly does that mean? 

If, like me, your initial inclination is to question why at its pinnacle of popularity, the green chile cheeseburger needs to be preserved, you’re missing the point.  Likewise, the motto has nothing to do with  mimicking the burgers crafted by New Mexico’s two claimants to being progenitor of all green chile cheeseburgers: The Owl Cafe & Bar and Bert’s Burger Bowl.  The Shake Foundation is all about preserving and honoring the inviolable traditions and impeccably high standards of the green chile cheeseburger.  It’s about crafting the type of green chile cheeseburgers that trigger memories of unforgettable burgers past while creating new memories that will have you eagerly anticipating your next great green chile cheeseburger.

The Shake Foundation in Santa Fe (side view)

Despite its “mission statement,” the Shake Foundation isn’t based solely on green chile cheeseburgers as proffered throughout the Land of Enchantment, but also on founder-owner-chef Brian Knox’s boyhood memories of eating cheeseburgers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Milwaukee, as burgerphiles everywhere know, is famous for slathering its burgers–both bun and beef–with butter: lots of gooey, unctuous, calorific butter.  Milwaukee’s butyraceous burgers are the quintessential five napkin (or more) burger.

For nearly three decades, the name Brian Knox has been synonymous in Santa Fe with fine-dining.  Prior to launching the Shake Foundation, Chef Knox owned and operated Aqua Santa, a contemporary American restaurant which helped pioneer the city’s slow-food movement.  He’s been wanting to make high-quality burgers widely accessible and affordable in a fun and welcoming venue for several years.  The Shake Foundation is the culmination of those dreams.

ShakeFoundation03

Shoestring Fries and a Lavender Shake

Built on a site which for fifty years housed a gas station, the Shake Foundation isn’t much bigger than a roadside stand, but offers an ambitious menu belying its Lilliputian size.  This burger hop is strictly a walk-up operation with a number of picnic tables for seating.  A number of stately deciduous trees provide seasonal shade and help block New Mexico’s winds.

Burgers are the featured fare: cheese burgers with or sans green chile and the classic burger, both available as singles or doubles.  A number of free and optional toppings are available, the latter including such revolutionary items as whipped lardo (seasoned, cured pork fat), house-brined pickles and jalapeños and garlic mayo.  The menu also offers a turkey burger, a portobello burger and a New Mexico Shepherd’s Lamb Burger as well as a fried oyster sandwich with red chile mayo.  Green chile stew and a Caesar salad round out the food menu.

ShakeFoundation04

Double meat green chile cheeseburger with bacon

31 March 2014: If for no other reason than we’re in America and we like to super-size our burgers, you’ll want to order a double meat burger.  The single is all of three ounces (just an ounce shy of the quarter-pounder), but by all appearances doesn’t look much bigger than some “sliders.”  A better reason to order a double meat burger is the beef’s healthful deliciousness.  The beef blend is a combination of sirloin and brisket with no hormones or antibiotics.  All burgers are cooked to medium unless otherwise requested.  True to Chef Knox’s heritage, buns are buttered though not dripping in butter as you’d find in Milwaukee. 

The menu warns that “Our New Mexico green chile is hot!”  That’s hot with an exclamation point.  Frankly, most New Mexicans won’t wince at its piquancy (or relative lack thereof), but we’ll certainly appreciate its roasted flavor and fruity nuances.  A few strips of bacon are a perfect, salty complement to the green chile as is the rich, gooey Monterey Jack cheese.  Even with a double, you might want to order two of these burgers.  With a bun not more than four inches around, they have a subliminal effect of appearing small even though with double meat, they tower above most chain burgers.  The Shake Foundation’s burgers are juicy and absolutely delicious, well worthy of New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail consideration. 

Fried Oyster Sandwich with Red Chile Mayo

17 September 2016: Having lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for nearly eight years, I consumed oyster po’ boys by the boatful, my favorite being the behemoth bivalve sandwich from Cafe Maspero in New Orleans.  In New Mexico, it may be easier to find a prize pearl inside an oyster than to find an outstanding oyster po’ boy or sandwich.  The Shake Foundation’s version, a Gulf Coast meets the Land of Enchantment sandwich may be changing that with its fried oyster sandwich with red chile mayo.  The oyster is moist and delicious and the red chile mayo is slathered on generously.  The combination of flavors is a winner. Note: On occasion, Santa Fe’s Bang Bite Filling Station constructs an even more amazing oyster po’ boy.

17 September 2016:  From 1983 through 1993, a tiny restaurant on Cornell Avenue named Sheepherder’s Café made eating lamb not only fashionable, but immensely satisfying and incomparably delicious. Its specialty was the Lamburger, a thick, charbroiled lamb patty served on a sourdough bun with homemade salsa.   Since its much lamented closure, I’ve sought to replicate that uniquely wonderful dining experience to no avail.   That is, until we discovered the Shake Foundation’s New Mexico Shepherd’s Lamb Burger, a burger I topped with Monterey Jack cheese and green chile.  If taste buds have a memory, my first bite of this super-sized slider transported me back to the Sheepherder’s Cafe and every bite thereafter reinforced the experience.  This burger quickly became my second favorite burger in Santa Fe behind only the Santa Fe Bite‘s green chile cheeseburger.  It’s an amazing burger!  That is, it’s an amazing burger when it’s made with double meat.  To taste and appreciate that meat, you’ll have to strip the burger of the ripe, red tomatoes and crisp lettuce.  Even then, it brought to mind the Wendy’s commercials of yore which lamented “where’s the beef.”

New Mexico Shepherds Lamb Burger

Hand-cut shoestring fries, available in single or double portions, are a nice accompaniment to your burgers.  Made from potatoes grown in Colorado, they’re fried to a crispy, but not potato chip-like texture and don’t require desalinization as do so many other fries.  They’re also not quite as greasy as conventional fries.  Being shoestring thin means they’re also not as moist as other fries. 

True to the name on the marquee, shakes are a point of pride. Rightfully so! These are not the cloying, syrupy, made-from-a mix shakes the chains dispense. You can actually taste the ice cream with which these shakes are made…and it’s great ice cream made from Taos Cow ice cream (one of the “ten best ice cream parlors worldwide” according to Fox News.  It’s a rich, creamy, smooth ice cream available in “viva la differencia” flavors such as lavender and piñon caramel.  Even better is the Mexican Chocolate shake which my Kim calls the best shake she’s ever had.  Unless you’ve got the suck power of a vacuum cleaner, you’ll need a spoon because a straw just won’t cut it. 

It could be debated that the Shake Foundation isn’t as much about “the preservation of the original green chile cheeseburger” as it is taking it to a new level with the type of creativity which made Chef Knox one of Santa Fe’s most acclaimed culinary minds.  

Shake Foundation
631 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988.8992
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 September 2016
1st VISIT: 31 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger with Bacon, Fried Oyster Sandwich with Red Chile Mayo, Double Meat Hamburger, Shoestring French Fries, Lavender Shake, Piñon Shake, Mexican Chocolate Shake, Double Meat New Mexico Shepherd’s Lamb Burger

Shake Foundation Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Spinn’s Burgers & Beer – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Spinns Burger & Beer serves one of the very best burgers in the metropolitan area!

Like him or not, few would disagree that former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici was one of the most effective legislators on either side of the aisle.  Since his election to the United States Senate in 1972, “Saint Pete” as he is known by admirers and critics alike effectively directed the appropriation of significant federal largesse upon the Land of Enchantment. For many native New Mexicans, one of his shining moments came in 1983.  During a debate about the spelling of the word (chili or chile), Domenici clarified for the Congressional record that “chili” is “that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma.” 

Motivated by Dominici’s impassioned plea, on November 14, 1983 the Albuquerque Journal declared “The I’s of Texas are no longer on us.  ‘Chili is dead.  The only time we will use “i” will be when we quote the written word of some Texan.”  Not to be outdone, in January, 1988 a bipartisan bill was introduced in the New Mexico State Legislature threatening that any New Mexican who misspells “chile” as “chili will automatically be deported to Texas.  Ever an inclusive and progressive state, New Mexico’s tolerance for the aberrant spelling has been relaxed a bit, especially since some restaurants actually serve the Texan dish.  Spinn’s Burger & Beer comes to mind.

Something to see everywhere you turn

Many New Mexicans acknowledge that the word “chili” exists only as an aberration.   We spell the dish, plant and pod correctly–with an “e.” Place a bowl of hot Texas chili in front of a New Mexican and most of us would consume it (or attempt bravely to do so)–if only to deride it as anecdotal evidence that not only is its spelling incorrect, the product is inferior. Few of us will ever admit to admiring the concoction Texans proudly call chili and if we ever hit upon a bowl we actually like, we’re not going to tell anyone.

As a stubborn native New Mexican, I wouldn’t even begrudgingly admit to liking the Texas chili at Spinn’s Burgers & Beer–even if I did. The fact that I didn’t like it at all (the cumin was just overwhelming) makes writing about it more sincere. That chili is available as an appetizer in cup or bowl portions and even better (because the cumin is diluted a bit), as an option on Spinn’s Frank-n-Steins–plump, juicy sausages steamed in beer and available in three varieties, all served on poppy seed rolls and garnished as you like them.

A colorful mural littered with glitterati

The Frank-n-Stein is a jumbo all beef frank, the Polish-stein is a spicy Polish sausage (a dog that bites back) and the Brat-n-Stein is bratwurst steamed in beer and browned on the grill (have it with sauerkraut which is excellent). There are few hot dogs in Albuquerque as good as those offered at Spinn’s, a July, 2006 newcomer to the Albuquerque dining scene which closed in 2010 only to reopen in May, 2011, albeit in a smaller location within a mile of the original site.  In its new digs, Spinns has downsized significantly while retaining much of the charms which made it a very popular dining destination during its nearly four-year run.

The first restaurant venture for Texas born and bred entrepreneur Mike Spinn, the eponymous Spinns serves local hand-crafted Mable Micro Brew beers….but for me, the big draw is the food. Aside from “chili”  (my well-trained spellchecker is yelling at me about that horrid spelling), the menu includes gourmet burgers, flame-grilled Angus steaks and other Texas staples such as country fried chicken strips and gravy.

Green Chile Cheeseburger

The burgers start off as more than a third-pound of fresh ground Angus beef that’s never been frozen.  All burgers are served with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions and mustard–all on the side so you can use them in the proportions you want.  Burgers are cooked medium-well unless you request otherwise.  Order the green chile cheeseburger with double meat and double cheese even though the menu indicates it’s made with green “chili” (why hasn’t Mike Spinn been deported to Texas for that offensive spelling).  It takes two hands to handle this baby  and five or six napkins to wipe your lips as you eat it.  There are two Wendy’s commercials which more aptly describe a burger at Spinn’s than they ever did at the perpetually third-place burger chain.  A Spinn’s burger answers the Wendy’s question “where’s the beef?”.  The beef overruns the bun at Spinn’s.  The second Wendy’s commercial befitting a Spinn’s burger is the one for the “hot and juicy” burger which required multiple napkins.

After our respective first bites during our inaugural visit, my friend Bill Resnik and I exclaimed almost in unison “Rex’s.”  Spinn’s burgers are indeed reminiscent of those served at Rex’s Hamburgers, an Albuquerque institution which closed in 2005 only to return in 2008. That’s a compliment.  That means the burgers are juicy and delicious.  While the green chili (aaargh!) is only mildly piquant (at least for this fire-eater), it is a flavorful addition to a delicious and well-seasoned burger (dare I say probably the very best burger on the Duke City’s west side). It’s also one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the great state of New Mexico and would kick the butt of any burger in Texas.

Double-Double Texas BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger

A large lone star festoons one wall, an audacious display considering New Mexicans seem to have a bit of competitive disdain for their neighbor, but even the most proud New Mexican will embrace the Texas BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger.  This carnivore’s dream is best when served double-double style and prepared at medium.  Barbecue sauce is applied lightly–only enough to be faintly noticeable.  That allows the the meat and bacon to star.  The bacon is thick and smoky and the beef is juicy and flavorful.  Carbohydrate avoiders will love the beef at Spinn’s.

Few things go as well with burgers as French Fries, a culinary marriage that works best with crispy fries that don’t start off frozen and in a bag. At Spinn’s the fries are freshly cut and fried to order and are golden brown and delicious.  They’re easily some of the best fries in Albuquerque, by far better than the out-of-a-bag aberrations.   Spinn’s onion rings are large and sweet (possibly Vidalia onions) and are among the best restaurant onion rings on the West side.

Brat-n-Stein: A juicy Bratwurst in a gourmet dog bun

In addition to the Double/Double, Spinn’s signature gourmet burger line-up includes a Texas BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, a Queso burger (served open-face with queso), and an Armadillo Burger (a six-ounce all-beef patty, green chili, bacon and egg smothered in Texas chili and cheese placed on top of a flour tortilla) and a tortilla burger.  Extras include peppered bacon, avocados, cheese, mushrooms, green chili and an egg over easy.  You can also request a wheat bun on request.  The tortilla burger is excellent and an even better way to hold in all the juiciness of a very moist burger. 

Juiciness seems to be a hallmark of Spinn’s beef and not just on the burgers.   Spinn’s rendition of the Philadelphia Cheesesteak is one of the very best in the Duke City.  There are two ways you can have it–the conventional Philly style with onions and green peppers and New Mexico style with green chile.  An even better way would be to have it with onions, green peppers and New Mexican green chile.  The green chile has a nice bite to it, more than any other green chile Philly in town.  Spinn’s uses a very creamy white American cheese that goes very well with the beef.

Philly Cheesesteak New Mexico Style

My friend Señor Plata’s father once told him that chicken fried steak was something his family would eat during the great Depression.  It hasn’t stopped Señor Plata from enjoying it more than anyone I’ve met outside of Texas where chicken fried steak is practically a religion.  Texas born Mike Spinns obviously worshiped at that altar a few times.  His restaurant’s version is among the best in town.  The tenderized cube steak is thick and fork-tender.  It’s covered in a peppery gravy that  gives it wake-up qualities.  The chicken fried steak is served with two sides.

A large mural festoons the south wall of the Spinn’s location. Painted by popular local muralist Karen Deaton, it depicts several glitterati (including James Dean, Shirley Temple, Nat King Cole and Marilyn Monroe) enjoying themselves with beer and burgers.  On the mural’s bottom right corner was a sight familiar to anyone who’s driven in West Texas–an armadillo on its back. What most of us haven’t seen, however, is that armadillo quaffing a bottle of Lone Star beer while on its back. It’s a whimsical mural that kept your eyes busy while you waited for your food and beverage order. 

Spinns Chicken Fried Steak

I’m not sure Saint Pete would appreciate the menu’s malapropisms, but I’ll bet he’d like most of the food (except maybe the chili).

Spinn’s Burgers & Beer
4411 Montano Road, N.W., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 899-6180
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT
: 4 September 2016
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chili Cheeseburger; Polish-Stein; Onion Rings; French Fries, Sweet Potato Fries, Texas BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, Philadelphia Cheesesteak (New Mexico Style), Chicken Fried Steak

Spinn's Burger & Beer Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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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