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66 Pit Stop: Home of the Laguna Burger – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The 66 Pit Stop: Home of the Laguna Burger on the banks of the Rio Pueblo west of Albuquerque

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.

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 50′s themed diner in which some of New Mexico’s very best green chile cheeseburgers are prepared

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.

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.

The dining room at the Home of the Laguna Burger

The dining room at the Home of the Laguna Burger

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.

One of green chile cheeseburger restaurants garnering the most votes was a superette (convenience store) with the intriguing name “Home of the 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!

Cheromiah Marshall prepares a green chile cheeseburger

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.

Though the Home of 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.

    The now famous Laguna Burger with Fries

The now famous Laguna Burger with Fries

Yes, lovingly!  The shirts worn by the staff are emblazoned with the slogan, “Is it the beef or is it the love?”.  If Cheromiah Marshall is manning the grill, you can be assured it’s equal parts of both.  Cheromiah is as engaging and funny as any counter man in New Mexico.  He takes 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.

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 winner of 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!

Frito Pie

As Cheromiah prepared my burger, another staffer shaped ground beef into rounded balls, weighing them to ensure each was exactly eight ounces.  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.

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 Home of 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.

Home of the Laguna Burger
66 Pit Stop
14311 Central Avenue, NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site

(505) 352-7848
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2014
1st VISIT: 15 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Frito Pie

66 Pit Stop (Laguna Burger) on Urbanspoon

Badlands Burgers & Tortas – Grants, New Mexico

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Badlands Burgers & Tortas in Grants, New Mexico

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.  It looked like it could run.
Up on its back and away I did ride,
Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico.
~El Paso by Marty Robbins

From the Texas cowboy immortalized in the Marty Robbins ballad to Walter White, Albuquerque’s favorite meth maker, through time immemorial whenever circumstances in the wild and rugged west have been at their most grim and perilous, even the most intrepid of heroes have escaped to the badlands of New Mexico. The badlands of New Mexico are an other-worldly expanse of naturally occurring topographical anomalies: undulating mounds, hulking hoodoos, elaborately eroding landscapes, precipitously balanced rocks of different forms and shapes in surreal color palettes. Ostensibly, the badlands make for a good hiding place.

Perhaps the baddest of New Mexico’s badlands is El Malpais, a term which translates from Spanish to “the bad lands,” but which has been defined in science as an extensive area of rough, barren lava flows. El Malpais hearkens back to the geologic era in which volcanoes spewed out molten lava over the high desert to form the primeval black basalt terrain which astonishes visitors. Interstate highway 40 bisects those ominous black lava flows as they meander past Grants, New Mexico, more than twenty miles away.

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The unique flooring at Badlands dates from the 1950s

The history of Grants is punctuated by periods of economic malaise following periods of great prosperity. The most recent economic ebb and flow occurred during the boom generated by uranium mining followed by its decline. Through it all, the 10,000 or so citizens of Grants have remained a resilient and persevering lot. Today, the town of Grants is experiencing a resurgence courtesy of the area’s scenic beauty and an increase in tourism. The city is poised and primed to show off its natural surroundings and take great care of visitors.  That includes feeding them well.

One of the most popular man-made attractions bringing in visitors from throughout New Mexico and beyond is Badlands Burgers & Tortas, likely the most well-known dining destination in Cibola county. Named for the nearby Malpais, Badlands Burgers is a family owned and operated little gem that has taken on the big guys and won. During the inaugural Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge in 2009, Badlands Burgers took on twenty purveyors of New Mexico’s sacrosanct sandwich and beat them all, earning first-place honors as well as induction into the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

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Recognize this guy? Former New Mexico state governor Bill Richardson enjoys a green chile cheeseburger at Badlands

The Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge was inspired by The Buckhorn Tavern‘s Bobby Olguin’s besting of Food Network glitterati Bobby Flay in a green chile cheeseburger challenge.  It’s only fitting that a framed photograph of the governor who helped conceive the challenge hangs on the wall at Badlands Burgers.   From all indications, Governor Bill Richardson enjoyed the burger very much. So did the hundreds of guests inspired to visit Grants to sample the award-winning green chile cheeseburger.

Unfortunately not long after its halcyon triumph, Badlands Burgers was forced to close when a state Environment Department inspector found the restaurant’s grease hood  in violation of state requirements.  Two years later on July 4th, 2012th, original owner Daniel Chavez partnered with friend Alfredo Garza to reopen Badlands Burgers in a landmark Grants location.   The restaurant is now housed in the circa 1950s edifice which had long been the home of the Uranium Cafe.

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Frito Pie Supreme, one of the two very best Frito pies we’ve had in New Mexico

The venerable restaurant abounds in charm and personality.  The whitewashed exterior walls of the Uranium Cafe have been replaced by a dark cranberry color.  Orange-yellow flames frame the windows.  While the interior is somewhat timeworn, there’s something to capture your eye no matter where you turn.  The multi-colored flooring resembles an interlocked puzzle with each individual piece being a six-inch rubber “tile.”   On the wall in which Governor Richardson’s picture hangs is a 1936 map of New Mexico.  Framed photographs of Grants’ mining heritage festoon another wall.

Breakfast is served daily from 7AM to 11AM with a six-item menu.  The breakfast torta (eggs,cheese, mayo, beans and your choice of chorizo, bacon, ham, sausage or Spam) may be the most interesting item.  The lunch menu lives up to the name on the marquee with eight burgers and seven tortas as well as a grilled or crispy chicken sandwich, California burrito and tacos.  Time permitting, Daniel Chavez, as effusive and hands-on as any owner-chef you’ll find, will also prepare enchiladas for you.  As with so many savvy New Mexican chefs, Daniel disdains cumin.

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The Millie Burger with Seasoned Fries

There are three starters on the menu, two of which are uncommon and uncommonly good.  The Frito Pie Supreme, in fact, is one of the two very best Frito Pies we’ve had in New Mexico (the other being the carne adovada laced Frito Pie at Perea’s Tijuana Bar & Restaurant in Corrales).  Instead of commercial, out-of-a-bag Fritos corn chips, the restaurant prepares its own Fritos.  A generous amount of Fritos are topped with red and (or) green chili (sic), refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, sour cream and guacamole.  The guacamole is superb–rich, creamy and redolent with freshness.  Both the red and green chile are excellent with the type of flavor and piquancy New Mexicans love.  The refried beans are exemplary.

Badlands Burgers is doing its part to combat the Monday morass by offering a more cheerful reason to enjoy Mondays. On Millie Mondays, the Millie Burger is offered at a discount. If nothing else goes right on your Monday, this burger will make your day. The Millie Burger is constructed from two one-third pound beef patties, guacamole, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, cheese and green chile. If you can’t open your mouth wide enough to accommodate such a beefy behemoth, you can ask for your burger to be made with only one third-pound beef patty. The Millie Burger is one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the Land of Enchantment, well worth a trip from Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Freshness and flavor are hallmarks of this burger which is crafted on an artisan bun made especially for the restaurant. The beef is juicy and delicious and unlike far too many green chile cheeseburgers, the chile actually bites back. It’s a very good chile on a great burger.

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The Route 66 Mushroom & Swiss Burger

In honor of the “Mother Road” which once traversed through the city of Grants, Badlands Burgers offers the Route 66 Mushroom & Swiss Burger made with sautéed mushrooms, onions, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato. For textural and flavor contrasts within one ingredient, both caramelized and fresh red onions are used. The onions meld magnificently with the fleshy, earthy fungi which are plentiful on the lightly toasted buns. Adding mustard, ketchup or mayo to this superb burger might detract from a delightful flavor profile. Burgers are served with homestyle fries, but you can substitute seasoned fries or onion rings for a pittance more.

In March, 2013, Cheryl Jamison, architect of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail and New Mexico Magazine’s culinary editor published a blog post on her Tasting NM site in which she named Badlands Burgers and Tortas one of the top road food spots on New Mexico’s I-40 West. In September, 2013, Badlands competed in the annual state fair burger challenge, earning a third-place finish. Even though Grants is a bit off the well-traveled, well-beaten, well-eaten path, Badlands Burgers should not be missed by any burgerphile. It’s one of New Mexico’s very best.

Badlands Burgers & Tortas
519 West Santa Fe Avenue
Grants, New Mexico
(505) 287-5557
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Millie Burger, Route 66 Mushroom & Swiss, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Frito Pie Supreme

Badlands Burgers & Tortas on Urbanspoon

Lumpy’s Burgers – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The second (and more conventional) Lumpy’s opened on November 18, 2011 at 10131 Coors Road, N.W.

Of all the adjectives that can be used to describe something or someone, lumpy is certainly not one of the most complimentary.  Think of all the Archie Bunker-like tantrums thrown during holiday meals when lumpy mashed potatoes are served or the breakfast battles that ensue when the oatmeal is lumpy. In fits of pique, seven-time Academy Award nominated actor Richard Burton often called his voluptuous wife Elizabeth Taylor “lumpy,” perhaps one of the reasons Hollywood’s most volatile couple was twice divorced and their relationship generally tumultuous.

Perhaps worse than describing something as “lumpy” is giving someone that nickname. Consider the Saturday Night Live skit which poked fun at former University of New Mexico golfer and current PGA tour pro Tim Herron because the “less than svelte” golfer’s nickname is “Lumpy.”  Never mind that the self-deprecating Herron embraces the sobriquet, it’s often the target of derision.  The Leave It To Beaver television series of the 50s and 60s portrayed “Lumpy” Rutherford as a “hefty” teenage dullard who’s a bit of a bully.

The unique "menu" that doubles as your order

The unique “menu” that doubles as your order

So why would a hamburger joint on Route 66 christen itself “Lumpy?”  Prospective diners would certainly hope it’s not a descriptive adjective for its burgers.  When owners Jay Kennedy and Jason Mancini were looking for a name befitting their new restaurant enterprise, they considered several options including Wimpy’s (which is already taken by a chain of fast-food hamburger restaurants based in the United Kingdom) before settling on Lumpy’s.  It’s a name, not a descriptive adjective.

For several months after the restaurant’s February, 2010 launch, long lines of hungry burger aficionados were typical, indicating the restaurant’s name is certainly not a deterrent.  If anything, the name is just one of several things about Lumpy’s which seems to inspire curiosity.  Lumpy’s does not subscribe to the stereotypical template of how a burger joint should operate.  It’s an archetype–something original, a burger restaurant daring to be different.

This is how ALL French fries should begin, not pre-sliced and frozen in a bag

This is how ALL French fries should begin, not pre-sliced and frozen in a bag

Albuquerque’s first Lumpy’s Burgers was situated in a very familiar location to residents of Albuquerque’s West Mesa area.  It was located on Route 66 just west of Central Avenue’s intersection with Old Coors Boulevard and about a mile from one of Albuquerque’s most prominent neon spangled signs, one which celebrates Route 66.  Lumpy’s occupied the former home of Taco Phil’s Carry Out, once one of the West side’s most popular New Mexican food destinations.  Designed in the 60s as strictly a carry-out enterprise, the building offered seating underneath a canopy that provided a bit of shade for those days of intense Duke City sunshine, but can’t buffet the March winds.  On November 18th, 2011, the second Lumpy’s opened its second restaurant near the Cottonwood Mall (10131 Coors Road, N.W.) in a building which last housed an Owl Cafe.  It’s a more conventional restaurant with indoor seating.  The original Lumpy’s closed shortly thereafter.

One of the first curiosities your eyes will affix upon is an upright wooden structure holding in place several bushel baskets. Upon further investigation, you’ll find the baskets are filled to varied levels with potatoes, both white Russets and reddish sweet potatoes. Patrons waiting in line will pluck the most pulchritudinous spuds out of those baskets and stuff them into a paper bag.

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“Skrewy” Fries made from regular and sweet potatoes

The paper bag, or rather a stack of them, is the next curiosity.  It doubles as the menu and it’s where you make your selections.  Burgers come in three sizes and are listed first.  There’s the quarter-pound Wimpy burger, the half-pound Lumpy and the three-quarter pound Plumpy.  Listed below the three burgers are the toppings: Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mayo, mustard, ketchup, green chile, jalapenos, Ranch dressing and Cali sauce ( a sort of homemade Thousand Island dressing).  All toppings are free of charge.  The young at heart can opt instead for a mini corn dog or chicken strips.

After you’ve annotated your burger and topping selections on the paper bag, your next decision is how you want your potatoes done: chunky (thick Texas style fries), skinny (shoestring) or skrewy (potato chips). Next you select your beverage of choice–Coke products or tea. You then put a couple of potatoes in the bag and proceed to the order counter where you hand your paper bag to the attendant. In about ten minutes your order will be filled.

Heath Foote holds a “Plumpy,” a three-quarter pounder (Photo Courtesy of Lilly Digital)

The third curiosity are the black shirts worn by the staff, shirts emblazoned with the perplexing slogan “it saved my life.”  The owners will tell you unabashedly that “Jesus Christ saved their lives, the slogan is just something to arouse interest.”  A placard on the window indicates the restaurant is not open on Sundays to allow team members time for worship and family.

Maybe a fourth curiosity is just how friendly people in line are. You’ll find that experienced visitors to Lumpy’s are quite willing to share the quirky ordering processes with neophytes visiting Lumpy’s for the first time. Not only will they walk you through the routine, they will even recommending which potatoes to order. You might even find yourself sharing a table with a man in the queue behind us.

A “Lumpy” (Half-Pounder) with Housemade Chips (Photo courtesy of Lilly Digital)

The fries recommended by most are the “skrewy” fries made from either the white Russet or red sweet potatoes.  These are not conventional fries, but waifishly thin potato chips and they are terrific.  Served warm in white paper bags, they are relatively low in salt and almost entirely greaseless.  The sweet potato chips are some of the best chips we’ve had in a long time.  They’re somewhat smallish, but very crisp and delicious.  The bottom of the bag also doesn’t contain any of those annoying broken chips you find in commercial products.

The three-quarter pound Plumpy earns its appellation. It’s a burger behemoth prepared on a flattop grill with three fresh, never frozen, beef patties and whatever toppings you selected on your paper bag. The Cheddar cheese drapes beyond the circumference of the sweet buns which are just formidable enough to contain the burger’s contents and juiciness. If you love a lot of cheese (and not that processed imitation served by many burger joints), this is your hook-up. The green chile is just piquant enough to get your attention (much more incendiary than the punchless stuff served at LotaBurger), there’s plenty of it and it’s got a smooth roasted flavor. The beef patties are well seasoned and juicy at just a shade over medium. It’s a good burger with fresh ingredients in generous proportions.

A chocolate “shutter,” Lumpy’s version of a chocolate milkshake (available only at the Cottonwood area Lumpy’s)

Even the quarter pounder is prolific.  Though it has one beef patty fewer, it would absolutely dwarf the saltfest served at the golden arches, both in sheer size and in flavor.   Lumpy’s  sold over 175,000 burger patties in their first 16 months of operation.  It was also one of the top vote-getters in the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail voting despite not having a green chile cheeseburger on its menu.

Owners Jay Kennedy and Jason Mancini have faith in their Lord and they have faith in their product.  They’ve got a good business model and the talent, product and gumption to succeed in a tough burger market.  Given a chance, they could grow in time to a viable competitor for Lota Burger, another local burger joint which started small, but became a beloved state-wide institution.  Now that’s an audacious claim, but you might make it, too, after sampling the food at a restaurant whose name you probably don’t want as your own, but whose product you will enjoy. 

Admittedly, I found the burgers at the original Lumpy’s location somewhat better than the burgers in the new location.  Perhaps it was the al fresco dining or the sense of community among the queue crowd or maybe even the novelty, but the new Lumpy’s, despite its closer proximity to home, hasn’t won me over.  Edward Sung recounts his experiences at Lumpy’s on the outstanding We Have Eaten Well blog.

Lumpy’s Burgers
10131 Coors Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-899-1022
LATEST VISIT: 5 June 2013
1st VISIT: 10 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lumpy Burger with Skrewy Fries, Chocolate Shutter

Lumpy's Burgers (Cottonwood) on Urbanspoon