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San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant – San Antonio, New Mexican

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The San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, New Mexico

Though I’m widely credited as being the “godfather of Albuquerque food blogging“(or the “Yoda of food” as the great Jenn Wolhetz once called me), before there was a Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Web, there was another voice calling in the wilderness to alert diners to the Land of Enchantment’s culinary offerings.  Before there was a Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Web, there was John W. Shipman food page and it was the most prominent and highly respected online source of independent restaurant reviews in New Mexico.

John Shipman, a software engineer at the New Mexico Institute of Technology, called himself a “gourmand in the dessert.”  His reviews were very well written and highly descriptive, reflecting the culinary savvy of a diner who understands food very well: its composition, its provenance, its flavor profiles.  To say John was an inspiration to me is a vast understatement.  He was the “everyman critic” whose prose and style I emulated (though he was much more successful than I at getting right to the point).  Some of his reviews can still be found online though he doesn’t update them very often.

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The San Antonio Crane mascot perched on the porch

To me John W. Shipman commands the type of respect given E. F. Hutton on television commercials.  The tag line for those commercials was “When E. F. Hutton speaks, people listen.”  When John emailed me in July, 2012 with a declaration that “the San Antonio Crane Restaurant has the best carne adovada south of Rancho de Chimayo,” my radar perked up and I began researching the restaurant he said served the “best Mexican food in the county.”  Alas, it would take another ten months before we were able to visit the San Antonio Crane.

The San Antonio Crane, as can be inferred, is named for the thousands of sandhill cranes which migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge every winter.  The Refuge, about nine miles away from San Antonio, New Mexico, is the winter home to tens of thousands of birds.  One of the most spectacular sights you’ll ever witness, an experience akin to a religious epiphany, is when thousands of snow geese simultaneously erupt in explosions of flight, an even triggered by some cue perceptible only to the geese.  It’s absolutely amazing!

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Salsa and Bean-Cheese dip with Chips

One of the cranes is apparently held back by its peers as it remains in San Antonio year-round.  He (or she) is a four-foot tall plastic mascot perched on the patio of the San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant.  The restaurant, by the way, isn’t on the main drag made famous by The Owl Cafe and Buckhorn Tavern.  It’s almost directly behind the Buckhorn Tavern on a side street you might not notice if you’ve got burgers on your mind.

The San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant was known for many years as Acosta’s and it was a village favorite visited by diners-in-the-know from miles around.  Owned and operated by Maria Acosta, it served some of the most authentic, made-from-scratch New Mexican cuisine in central New Mexico.  When it reopened in 2011, Acosta’s was rechristened The San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant, now operated by Zolla Acosta, daughter of the original proprietor.   Though the name lays claim to being a Mexican restaurant, the menu and cooking style are New Mexican through and through.

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Carne Adovada with a fried egg, Spanish rice and a tortilla

The menu includes a de rigueur (for San Antonio) green chili (SIC) cheeseburger as well as a BLT, grilled cheese and chicken strips for diners who aren’t chile inclined. John Shipman raves about the tamales, indicating they are “some of the best I’ve had anywhere.”  His favorite, however, is the carne adovada “made from pork slow-simmered in a savory sauce.”  He also loves the green chile which is “the way I like it: plenty of heat, but not quite life-threatening, and a lot of flavor.”

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the San Antonio Crane is tiny–no more than six or seven tables in a diminutive dining room with personal space proximity seating.  The outdoor patio will accommodate an equal number of diners though it’s use is on a weather permitting basis.    Service is attentive without being intrusive. Your lemonade (homemade) is replenished faithfully.

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Beef Enchiladas (three flat corn tortillas, beef, cheese, onions, red and green chile with beans and Spanish rice

Salsa isn’t complimentary, but it’s the starter with which every New Mexican food meal should begin.  The salsa has a pleasant piquancy with a respectable bite.  It’s served with red, yellow and blue corn chips which are served warm to hot.  The salsa is thick enough to be a “scooping” salsa and not a “dipping” salsa.  It’s better than so many bottled salsas you’ll find–even better if you pair it with an order of the beans-cheese dip,  soupy pintos with shredded Cheddar cheese.  Why more New Mexican restaurants don’t serve a beans-cheese dip starter is beyond me.

My Kim, the carne adovada aficionado in the family, doesn’t read my reviews or those written by John Shipman, but will jump at the opportunity to try adovada considered on par with that of Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo.   If eyes rolling back in her head are any indication, she loved the carne adovada which she topped with a fried egg over easy.  The carne adovada is indeed porcine perfection, shredded tendrils of tender pork marinated for hours in a wondrous red chile.  Not surprisingly it validated John Shipman’s credibility with me as other reviews of his have done.

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Ground beef taco with salsa

Jack Handey, a Saturday Night Live writer (who now lives in Santa Fe) renowned for his “Deep Thoughts” once remarked “If God dwells inside us like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas because that’s what He’s getting.”  Enchiladas are certainly one of the most popular of New Mexican entrees and my usual benchmark for how good a New Mexican restaurant is.  The Beef Enchiladas at the San Antonio Crane are an exemplary rendition of enchiladas: three flat corn tortillas layered with beef and topped with cheese and onions as well as your choice of red or green chile (or both).  The green chile is slightly more incendiary than the red chile, but both are very flavorful.  The enchiladas are served with Spanish rice and beans, some of the most pulchritudinous pintos in New Mexico.

Make sure to have a taco on the side.  The tacos–ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomatoes and salsa–are quite good, served in a deep-fried corn tortilla fashioned as a shell for the other ingredients.  The corn tortilla is both pliable and crispy, providing an enjoyable textural contrast.  The ground beef is nicely seasoned and doesn’t have the “refried” flavor of far too many tacos served in New Mexican restaurants. 

With typical New Mexican aplomb, John Shipman once wrote “life without green chile is not worth living.”  He gets his fix at the San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant at least once a week.  If it wasn’t 120 miles away from my home, I’d certainly visit more often, too.  It’s one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in New Mexico and certainly the best in Socorro county.

San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant
17 South Pino Street
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-2208
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carne Adovada, Beef Enchiladas, Salsa and Chips, Bean and Cheese Dip, Tacos

The Owl Cafe & Bar – San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

San Antonio may be but a blip on the map, but its storied and pioneering history make this sparsely populated agricultural community arguably one of New Mexico’s most important towns.

In 1629, San Antonio was the site on which Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico (in defiance of Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world.) San Antonio was the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, founder of the ubiquitous Hilton Hotels and more importantly, one of New Mexico’s original legislators after statehood was granted in 1912. San Antonio was also the gateway to the Trinity Site in which the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. While these events are historically significant, they are also inextricably bound by one common element–the uncommonly ordinary facade that houses the extraordinary, world-famous Owl Cafe.

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The Owl Cafe and Bar

Conrad Hilton’s father once owned the saloon in which the bar (pictured below) in the Owl Cafe once held prominence and presumably sold the fruit of the vine whose progenitors may have been among New Mexico’s original grape stocks. According to local lore, the fathers of the nuclear age spent much of their free time cavorting at the Owl Cafe where original owner Jose Miera installed a grill and started crafting the green chile cheeseburgers that would ultimately achieve unprecedented acclaim.

Ostensibly, the restaurant was named the Owl because legal gambling was conducted at all hours of the night in the back of the restaurant, ergo by “night owls.” Today feathered fowl are still important to San Antonio’s local economy as thousands of bird watchers flock to the nearby Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to crane their necks for a glimpse of geese, ducks and cranes. The Owl Cafe offers welcome respite from the pleasures of bird-watching.

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

Rowena Baca, a descendent of the Owl Cafe’s founder and current proprietor of the Owl Cafe, holds on to tradition, preparing the world-famous green chile cheeseburger in much the same way as her grandfather did. The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and green chile) are unfailingly fresh. On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns. The meat positively breaks apart (the consequences of not using filler and an optimum fat to lean ratio) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair.

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. Ironically, it’s not green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company. The reason given is that the Albuquerque Tortilla Company’s Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness. Somehow it makes sense.

Double meat, double cheese green chile cheeseburger, one of the very best in New Mexico (ergo, the universe)

Another Owl tradition you can’t help but notice is all the dollar bills tacked on the restaurant’s walls. Patrons leave messages or write their names on dollar bills then tack them on any available free space. Once a year, the money is collected and given to charity with more than $19,700 donated thus far.

On an average summer day, the Owl Cafe will serve an average of six to seven hundred burgers. The population of San Antonio rivals that of a larger city during lunch and dinner hours when the Owl’s several parking lots are overflowing with hungry diners. The front dining room will accommodate only a few of them. Fortunately the restaurant has several dining rooms; you’ve got to go through one to get to another.

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern, rated the Owl Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger on Epicurious.Com as one of the top ten burgers in America–lavish praise indeed for one of New Mexico’s historic gems. It has garnered similar acclaim by other notable critics, having transcended the generations by sticking to a time-tested formula of providing great food at reasonable prices. Disputably there may be better green chile cheeseburgers out there, but there are none more famous.

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies. Kuralt loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment. In his book America, he declared the Own Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.

The hamburger steak dinner

The hamburger steak dinner

In his celebration of America’s favorite dish, filmmaker George Motz traversed the fruited plain in search of some of the country’s most unique burgers for his 54-minute film Hamburger America which made it to the airwaves in 2004. In 2008, he followed up his award-winning documentary with a state-by-state tome listing what he considers the best burgers throughout the fruited plain. Motz loved The Owl calling it “a friendly place, a family saloon with an excellent burger on the menu.”

The menu isn’t limited to burgers. Savvy diners will order the hamburger steak dinner, a bounteous platter that will fill you up for about ten dollars. This platter includes a juicy hamburger patty (no charring anywhere), a small mountain of hand-cut French fries, a salad with your choice of dressing (including a pretty good blue cheese dressing), Texas toast and bowls of green chile and beans. Make sure you get the grilled onions atop that hamburger steak. It’s an unbeatable combination.

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans--sheer pleasure!

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans–sheer pleasure!

The other “must have” in addition to an outstanding green chile cheeseburger is a bowl or side of beans with green chile. The aroma of steaming green chile wafts through the dining room as your waitress approaches and you’re the envy of any diner who may not have ordered this favorite of New Mexican comfort foods. The beans are frijoles, whole pinto beans, not refried or black beans you’ll find elsewhere. Ironically, as proud of New Mexicans are to claim green chile as our official state vegetable, we’re often hesitant to admit frijoles share official state honors with green chile. The frijoles at the Owl Cafe will remind you why real New Mexicans love and are proud of their precious pintos.

The Owl Cafe has several other menu items, but rarely do you see anyone foolhardy enough to order say, a hot dog or nachos. It is entirely forgivable, however, to order a patty melt (pictured below), one of the very best of its kind anywhere. One of the reasons this patty melt is oh, so good is obvious. The same wondrous beef patty used on the Owl’s world-famous green chile cheeseburgers is used to create this pulchritudinous patty melt. Two slices of American cheese drape over grilled sweet onions complete the masterpiece sandwiched between two slices of light rye. It’s a fantastic alternative to green chile cheeseburgers.

Patty melt at the Owl Cafe

Skip the dessert at the Owl and head next door to the San Antonio General Store where Anne Lund serves some of the very best homemade fudge anywhere as well as ice cream (Dreyers), drinks, snacks and sandwiches. Lund actually bought the General Store from Rowena Baca’s daughter and spent about a year perfecting the wonderful fudge (which is made with real butter and cream). Perfect is the operative word for fudge in which you can taste the quality and a whole lot of love from a confectionery artist.

The Owl Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 8AM to 9PM and is closed on Sundays.

The Owl Cafe & Bar
State Hwy. 1 and U.S. 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-9946
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 19 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger; French Fries, Beans and Green Chile, Hamburger Steak Dinner, Patty Melt

Owl Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

San Antonio General Store – San Antonio, New Mexico

San Antonio General Store, home of New Mexico's best fudge

San Antonio General Store, home of New Mexico's best fudge

Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of
arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather
to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, latte in the other, body
thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “Woo Hoo, what a ride!”
- Motto to Live By

What struck me most about this motto was not the profundity of its words, but their placement–on a placard hanging directly above a glass pastry case showcasing some of the most delicious fudge in the state.  It seems somehow appropriate that the motto hover above gourmet fudge like a radiant halo.  This is fudge crafted with imagination and flair.  It is luscious and decadent, extremely rich and thoroughly delicious.  It is a perfect gift for yourself and for someone you love.

The San Antonio General Store is across the street and catty-corner from the world-famous Buckhorn Tavern and separated by a short parking lot from the equally world-famous Owl Cafe.  There may be nothing better in the entire world than a green chile cheeseburger from either of the village’s world-famous purveyors of burger perfection followed by  fudge warranting the overused “enchanted” adjective.

Some of the best fudge in the state

Some of the best fudge in the state

From the outside, the San Antonio General Store may not warrant a second glance.  It looks like a two-pump gas station in a small, rural New Mexico village–and indeed, motorized conveyances of all kinds drive up and fill up.  If you expect the heady smell of stale gas and oily rags to follow you into the store, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Like many small town country stores, the San Antonio General Store has a little bit of everything to provision locals and hungry sojourners.  There are aisles of shelves well stocked with savory and sweet snacks of all types as well as well-lit refrigerators showcasing America’s favorite cold carbonated beverages.  Small town general stores like this one aren’t slaves to either Coke or Pepsi products and are at liberty to proffer fruity soft drinks such as Big Red, my favorite.

The San Antonio General Store

The San Antonio General Store

There are a couple of tables, too.  This is where diners sit to partake of Dreyer’s ice cream and we’re not talking about something you pluck out of a refrigerator and unwrap.  This is the good stuff–scooped out of tubs and served in cups.  It’s slow churned ice cream renown for its rich creaminess.  The San Antonio General Store has a surprising variety of flavors available.

The tables come in handy for guests who can’t wait to sink their teeth into one of the store’s deli sandwiches.  Constructed of sundry cold cuts, meats and cheeses, these sandwiches are popular take-out items among nature lovers making the short trek to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  From the rudimentary chicken salad sandwich to a complex sandwich arrangement, there’s something for everyone.

Chocolate Fudge

Chocolate Fudge

Ice cream and deli sandwiches not withstanding, the main attraction at the San Antonio General Store is the homemade fudge.  It’s old-fashioned fudge made the way it should be made–with real sugar, real cream and real butter.  It makes for really great fudge, the best in the Land of Enchantment great!

In 2007, Sarah Karnasiewicz, senior editor of Saveur, trekked back to New Mexico where she lived for a number of years to rediscover some of  the Land of Enchantment’s best “filling stations,” service stations in which you can actually find food that is not only fit for human consumption, it’s quite good, too.  She observed that, “we know of no other state in the Union where you can so consistently find such tasty cooking along the asphalt byways, often steps from the gas pumps.”

Rocky Road fudge

Rocky Road fudge

One of the filling stations to which Sarah ventured was the San Antonio General Store whose fudge she described as a “siren song to truckers and day-trippers alike.”  The fudge maven is Ann Lund, a Danish transplant to New Mexico who purchased the store in 2004.  That purchase included the previous owner’s carefully guarded recipes as well as hands-on training to ensure continuity in the making of the village’s legendary fudge.  It took Lund about six months to get it right.  Perfection takes time.

If perfection has a taste, it might taste like the pure milk chocolate fudge or maybe the oh-so-wonderful chocolate walnut fudge.  You might find it in the chewy peanut butter fudge or the luscious Rocky Road fudge where nuts and fluffy marshmallow combine to raise the standards of perfection.

Fabulous Fudge: Chocolate Walnut, Chocolate, Pistachio Nut, Praline

The village of San Antonio is almost indisputably New Mexico’s epicenter for green chile cheeseburger perfection, but a visit to Ann Lund’s San Antonio General Store and memories and dreams of your visit may center around the best fudge you’re likely to ever have.

San Antonio General Store
Us Hwy 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-4594
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 19 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Rocky Road Fudge, Amaretto Fudge, Milk Chocolate Fudge, Chocolate Walnut Fudge, Praline Fudge, Pistachio Fudge