Known as “America’s Highway” and celebrated by author John Steinbeck as the “Mother Road,” the legendary Route 66 meandered across 2,448 miles of the fruited plain, crossing three time zones and eight states as it traversed from Chicago to Los Angeles. For many—especially destitute sharecroppers fleeing Oklahoma’s devastating Dust Bowl—Route 66 held the promise of a better life. For others, Route 66 brought a sense of connectedness with parts of America previously considered difficult to reach. For them, Route 66 engendered a frontier spirit of adventure, greatly expanding their vacation options and travel opportunities.
For hundreds of communities strewn along the two-lane blacktop, Route 66 was also an engine of economic prosperity, creating tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs large and small. The service industry fared especially well with roadhouses, motels and restaurants springing up, offering respite and sustenance to weary and hungry travelers. Since the halcyon days of Route 66, neon signage has been a prominent and vital part of the Mother Road as it winds through Albuquerque. From the foothills of the Sandias in the east to the parched desert expanse of the west, Route 66 is festooned with vibrant neon signage that cuts a luminous swath through the city. The nocturnal spectacle of glowing neon might be the siren’s call that has drawn generations of “cruisers” to the nostalgic route.
One of the Route 66 corridor’s most popular neon-spangled destinations celebrates Route 66 in name and spirit. Even though Route 66 was decommissioned as a U.S. highway in 1984, a visit to Albuquerque’s 66 Diner takes you back in time to when Nat King Cole was singing about getting his kicks on the fabled highway. It will transport you back to the days of pony-tailed waitresses in blue skirts and bobby socks, back to when rock-and-roll was making inroads to ruling the airwaves, to when Ed Sullivan was nabbing all the top talent for his popular variety television show.
With a jukebox full of hits, walls adorned with nostalgic black-and-white photographs and plenty of neon, the 66 Diner celebrates the era of Route 66 with aplomb, earning it an internationally known reputation. Hundreds of Pez dispensers line the ledges directly above the steely countertops in the front dining room. A black-and-white classic lunch counter calls to mind the ice cream fountain of yesteryear. There is much to like about the Route 66 the diner even if Route 66 the two-lane blacktop is solely something you’ve read about. You’ve got to admire the gumption of a restaurant willing to replace a recipe if a better one is brought in by a guest. That’s right! If you believe you have a tastier recipe for something, the 66 Diner will try it out and if they like it more, it will go on the menu. Not only that, they’ll treat you and three friends to dinner. Frankly, I have a feeling they haven’t had to comp many dinners.
That’s because the 66 Diner’s recipes are tried and tested over time. The diner originally launched in 1987 in a converted World War II era Phillips 66 gas station named Sam’s. It was an instant hit among locals and tourists alike. In May, 1995, the 66 Diner went up in flames, only a portion of the original structure remaining. Albuquerque was in mourning for nearly seven months as the diner was rebuilt. It relaunched in February, 1996 and like the Phoenix of legend, has arisen from the ashes to reclaim its previous glory.
Like many 1950s diners, the 66 Diner features a daily “blue plate special.” Ironically the term “blue plate special” originated not in the 1950s, but in the 1890s courtesy of the Fred Harvey restaurants along the railroad lines of the frontier west. I’ve written extensively in other reviews of Fred Harvey’s culinary contributions to the West. Like his other contributions, the genesis of the blue plate special is very interesting. Apparently Harvey bought cheap, disposable plates colored blue similar to Wedgwood dishes and used them to serve inexpensive meals, hence the term.
At the 66 Diner, the blue plate specials range from spaghetti and meatballs on Monday to chicken pot pie on Tuesday, chicken and dumplings on Wednesday, a taco platter on Thursday, fried catfish on Friday, a hot turkey sandwich on Saturday and “mom’s choice” (whatever mom comes up with) on Sunday. For the most part, the blue plate specials are comfort food favorites prepared very well and served in generous portions.
No ’50s-era diner would be complete without thick, rich milkshakes, floats and malts (egg creams are available, too). No one in Albuquerque does it any better. That’s the consensus of respondents to various annual polls of city diners who have voted the 66 Diner’s shakes “best in the city” consistently year after year. It’s unlikely, however, that you’d have been able to find a strawberry-lemonade or Mochaccino shake during the Route 66 era. The 66 Diner offers more than twenty different shake flavors.
Many people eschew the old stand-bys–chocolate, vanilla and strawberry–in favor of flavors that weren’t available in the 1950s. In fact, some of those revolutionary flavors might have been considered heretical in the more conservative era of the 50s. Those flavors include the Elvis Presley (banana and peanut butter), the Pink Cadillac (strawberry ice cream and crushed Oreos), Oreo, Dreamsicle, Mocha, Coffee and several others. Pumpkin pie and Egg Nog shakes are featured as “shakes of the month” during winter holiday season. Despite all the inventiveness, the most popular shake remains chocolate.
Unique flavors not withstanding, the 66 Diner’s milkshakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin on a Hamilton Beach blender, 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. The 66 Diner is also one of the few places in town to offer red cream soda, my favorite before I gave up sodas altogether.
25 June 2011: Nothing goes better with a shake, float or malt than a burger. In New Mexico, naturally this means a green chile cheeseburger. The 66 Diner makes one of the very best (top ten) green chile cheeseburgers in town–even though it didn’t made the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in either 2009 or 2011. When you request a burger a certain way, it’s delivered to your exacting specifications. Moreover you get a two-fisted burger in which the beef is prepared to your exacting specifications, the ingredients are unfailingly fresh and the chile (spelled correctly on the menu) actually bites back. It’s a very good chopped green chile with piquancy and flavor. Burgers are accompanied by your choice of sides–French fries, potato chips, coleslaw or potato salad.
28 June 2014: There are probably only a handful of Duke City restaurants deigning to serve a Sloppy Joe sandwich today. While the Sloppy Joe wasn’t “invented” during the Route 66 era, its peak in popularity occurred during that time. The Food Timeline Web site explains how the name Sloppy Joe came about: “There is probably no Joe after whom it is named–but its rather messy appearance and tendency to drip off plate or roll makes “sloppy” an adequate description, and “Joe” is an American name of proletarian character and unassailable genuineness.” At its most basic, the Sloppy Joe is a simple sandwich constructed with ground beef and a tomato sauce to which salt, pepper and spices are added. At its elevated form, it’s sandwich deliciousness you will crave. Route 66’s Sloppy Joe will inspire craving.
28 June 2014: Contrary to cynics who decry the patty melt as nothing but a “cheeseburger served on toast instead of a bun,” a patty melt—when made well—can be a transformative sandwich constructed from a high-quality ground beef patty topped with molten cheese and grilled onions on rye bread pan-fried in butter. The 66 Diner may prepare the very best patty melt in town. Perhaps that’s because the patty melt actually originated in the Route 66 era. Every element of this sandwich is absolutely textbook perfect, the way every patty melt should be made.
All sandwiches are served with your choice of French fries, potato chips, potato salad or coleslaw. For a pittance more, you can substitute onion rings, Cheddar fries, Fiesta fries, okra or a dinner salad. The onion rings are worth the splurge. They’re lightly battered and golden-hued, sheathing a sweet onion. The potato chips are crisp and whole, not annoying bottom-of-the-bag bits and crumbs.
The 66 Diner isn’t as well known for breakfast as perhaps it should be. Its limited breakfast menu might be the reason. Frankly, many New Mexicans are of the opinion that if you have breakfast burritos on the menu, you don’t need much else. The diner’s breakfast burrito is one of the biggest in the city, a large tortilla engorged with home fries, scrambled eggs and chopped green chile topped with melted Cheddar cheese and your choice of red and (or) green chile.
12 October 2008: Make yours “Christmas style,” a burrito covered with both red and green chile. Both are surprisingly good and more piquant than at many New Mexican food restaurants. In fact, the green chile is downright special, a fruity sweet and incendiary chile that elicits the type of endorphin rush which makes people fall in love with chile in the first place. The burrito is served with pinto beans.
12 October 2008: On our way to the 66 Diner for breakfast one Sunday, we passed a restaurant on Central Avenue offering “all you can eat pancakes for seven dollars.” A better bet would be ordering a “short stack” at the 66 Diner. Short obviously isn’t synonymous with small as we found out when our waitress delivered two pancakes which covered all but a tiny bit of the plate. These enormous pancakes would fill a small, developing nation (or as Jay Leno might quip, one fat American). We barely put a dent on them and even contemplated the notion of left-over pancakes, but perhaps only if you’re stoned would pancake left-overs be palatable…and they might cure the munchies. Otherwise, they’re almost inedible.
13 December 2017: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver is as California as a surfer girl or an In & Out Burger, but as much as he loves chicken fried steak, you’d think he was from Texas. When we make plans to meet for breakfast or lunch, he’s invariably “low-carbing” it. Healthy eating be damned when one of us suggests chicken fried steak. It’s a choice we always agree upon. In our two-man quest to traverse the length and breadth of the New Mexico chicken fried steak trail, it surprised me to learn he’d never tried the Route 66 Diner’s version. He quickly discovered what generations have known–that the tenderized slab of breaded steak on his plate is roughly the size of Danny DeVito. Seriously! It’s one large slab. As always, Sr. Plata didn’t settle for for only the house gravy (a meatless brown). He also requested a side of the con queso. He then slathered the slab with a sinful portion of both–not gravy on one side and queso on the other, but both intermixed. It was a delicious choice!
13 December 2017: While Sr. Plata enjoys chicken fried steak best, my preference is for chicken fried steak, a redundantly named dish which Serious Eats calls “country cooking at its most comforting.” This is one chicken dish about which any pretensions about chicken being a healthier alternative to beef go out the window. There’s not much healthiness in the tender, juicy hunk of tenderized and breaded chicken. Add queso and you can virtually feel your arteries hardening with every bite. What a way to go!
Friendly, attentive service is also a constant. There are many who say nothing could be finer than a meal at the 66 Diner. They’re right!
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2017
# OF VISITS: 16
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Breakfast Burrito, Pancakes, Red Cream Soda, Shakes, Malts, the “Dagwood”, Sloppy Joe, Patty Melt, Chicken Fried Steak, Chicken Fried Chicken