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

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina on Fourth Street in Albuquerque

At about 75 miles  each way, Cuba, New Mexico is almost equidistant between Albuquerque and Farmington. Regardless of starting point, the drive  to and from Cuba is  one of the Land of Enchantment’s most spectacular.  A preponderance of scenic vistas and an otherworldly, multi-hued topography make the drive a sightseer’s delight. The stratification of multi-hued earthen layers, will  remind you of colorful Navajo sand paintings while hulking hoodoos (columns or pillars of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness) will inspire awe, none more so than the nipple shaped Cabezon Peak, a dramatic 7,785 foot volcanic formation that commands the skies.

I must admit that most of my enjoyment of those incomparable vistas has been on the return trip from Cuba.  For some reason, I always seem to be in a hurry to get there with a single-mindedness of purpose only a seeker with a yen to be sated can truly understand.  In my quest to fulfill that longing, I’ve even resorted to corrupting the innocent,  once convincing my friend Sandy that her new Prius could reach speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour on the long, straight stretches of U.S. Highway 550.  So what would drive two law-abiding, upstanding citizens of good repute to risk life and limb at the expense of enjoying the scenery?

One of several dining rooms at El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina

The answer, of course, is El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina, considered by the cognoscenti as one of the very best purveyors of New Mexican food in the Land of Enchantment. For nearly four decades–since 1975–savvy diners have made their way to Cuba for traditional and contemporary New Mexican food crafted from Hazel Herrera’s family recipes.  Hazel and her husband Bruno are the genial proprietors of this storied restaurant, the destination of hungry legions who, like me, probably wait until the return trip to enjoy the vistas which give New Mexico the sobriquet “land of enchantment.”

There’s plenty to see on the premises of El Bruno, too.  A colorful mural on an exterior west wall depicts a New Mexican woman carrying a basket brimming with green, red and yellow chile peppers while other field hands harvest New Mexico’s official state vegetable from fecund and verdant fields. The entrance to El Bruno’s is through a wooden bell gate into an expansive courtyard.  A large Spanish bell is poised above the gate as if to call in hungry patrons to a meal with its timbre and tintinnabulation.  On the wooden gate is carved the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas.  To many New Mexicans there is no truer manifestation of welcome.

Salsa and Chips

Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s interior ambiance is superb (although what can truly compare to the unrivaled scenery on the way to Cuba). Being surrounded by the enrapturing art of Taos artist Miguel Martinez (renowned for painting beauteous women with almond-shaped eyes) as well as by charming antiques makes it an attractive milieu for any meal.  A canopy of huge vigas overhead and earthen-hued tones add to the New Mexican ambiance.  Ambiance not withstanding, it’s the food for which so many visit El Bruno.

For Albuquerque’s El Bruno’s enthusiasts, the news in August, 2010 that this terrific destination diner would be launching its first satellite, and in the Duke City, too, was as welcome as news that the Lobos had been invited to the big dance.  Notice that it wouldn’t open in December as originally announced was then akin to learning the Lobos had lost to BYU.  After a couple of false-starts, El Bruno’s finally opened on March 7th, 2011 in the spot vacated by long-time tenant Garduño’s of Mexico.  Ironically, the restaurant is situated on the intersection of Fourth Street  and Garduño Road.

Con queso with crispy tostadas

Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, a long-time contributor and friend of this blog, was one of the very first Burqueños to visit El Bruno’s. He came away impressed by some things, but disappointed by others indicating “perhaps my anticipation, nursed by several delays in opening, created a mystique which set too high a bar.”  With an ease of words I admire, Bob also relayed that El Bruno’s “captures what folks expect of an inviting New Mexican cantina, but avoids a formality to a place.”

An inviting New Mexican cantina is an apt description for El Bruno’s which straddles the line between casual and formal dining with a motif that includes bright earth-tone colored walls, earthenware sconces, tin light fixtures and other Southwestern accouterments.   Immediately to the left as you walk in is the bar-dining room and beyond that is an elongated  north-facing room bathed in sunlight.  The equipales furnishing (tables and chairs) in both these rooms  are crafted from fibrous materials removed from maguey cactus and fixed with leather bands.  The restaurant includes several other dining rooms including one in which intimate booths are partially shielded by purplish drapes.  The art of Miguel Martinez festoons several walls.

Traditional Shrimp Ceviche

The menu is extensive.  All the favorites from the original El Bruno’s are available.  A separate menu depicts lunch specials, all of which are named for Albuquerque area locales: Placitas, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Corrales, Ranchitos, Rio Rancho and the Cuba plate (one cheese and one beef enchilada, red and green chili (sic), beans, rice and melted cheese).  Appetizers range in price from eight to fourteen dollars and include such surprises as camarones Mexicanos marinated in El Bruno’s pinon sauce and traditional shrimp ceviche.  There are seven creative salads on the ensaladas section of the menu.

Enchiladas and tacos occupy an entire page on the menu.  Shrimp and crab enchiladas (topped with chile con queso and fresh green chile) are just one of the six different enchilada offerings, all of which can be made with blue corn tortillas.  Platos de pollo (plates showcasing chicken), de la parillada y del mar (from the grill or the sea) and fajitas y carnitas share a page on the menu.  The other two sections of the menu showcase Antojitos Mexicana and Platos de Combinacion on one page and burritos, chimichangas, los burgers and “para los niños” on another.  The menu is replete with surprises, some items of which you won’t see at other New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.

Carnitas and papitas

As you ponder the menu, the friendly and accommodating wait staff will deliver your first bowlful of salsa and a basket of red and yellow corn chips. My initial impression, one shared by Bob the Villager, was that the salsa lacked the piquancy of other Fourth Street New Mexican restaurants.  There was discernibly more heat in the salsa during my second and third visits when the medley of rich, red tomatoes and the jalapeños combined to titillate my taste buds with the heat they crave.  This is good salsa and the chips are thin and crisp yet substantial enough for Gil-sized scoops (though they’re quite salty).  There’s no chip-dipping in my table.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Bruno the very best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

13 March 2011: Alas, one of our very favorite dishes in Cuba, the magnificent chile con queso, was a disappointment in Albuquerque.  In fact, it was downright “dumbed down,” lacking the piquancy the Cuban con queso contained.  Though the queso was flecked with green (ostensibly green chile), it was as punchless as the University of New Mexico football team under coach Locksley.  Without piquancy, the queso was reminiscent of the gloppy Velveeta genre.  Instead of conventional chips, El Bruno’s con queso is served with crispy tostadas (fried flour tortillas).  These “chips” are magnificent!

Carnitas a la Mex with two enchiladas and a flour tortilla

29 March 2015: El Bruno’s menu pays homage to Old Mexico with several items you don’t often see in New Mexican restaurants.  Among those is “traditional” shrimp ceviche, a mariscos favorite throughout Mexico.  The quotation marks around “traditional” are there because El Bruno’s shrimp ceviche wouldn’t pass for traditional shrimp ceviche in Mexico.  In fact, it resembles something akin to a cross between Campechana (a Mexican seafood cocktail) and ceviche.  Where El Bruno’s ceviche (avocado, fresh lime, jalapeño, yellow hot, fresh cucumber, red onion and a special marinade sauce) lacks the tangy citrus prominence of Mexican ceviche, the freshness of the avocado, jalapeños and special marinade are quite good in their own right.  Our only other complaint with the ceviche is the relative sparsity of seafood.  There just wasn’t much of it.

13 March 2011: Fortunately one of the dishes we enjoyed most in Cuba is also on the menu in Albuquerque.  That would be El Bruno’s fabulous carnitas, some of, if not THE best carnitas in New Mexico. Celebrated among patrons who have sampled these cubed carnivore’s delights, the carnitas are available in two dinner combinations: the poetic sounding carnitas con papitas and the carnitas a la Mex which come with rolled enchiladas, refried beans and homemade tortillas, all of which are wonderful. What makes these carnitas incomparable is the quality of the sirloin (yes, sirloin, not pork as seems to be the case with most carnitas) which has the charbroiled taste of an outstanding steak. The papitas are silver dollar-sized, dusted with fiery red chile and on par with those served at Sadie’s in Albuquerque (meaning they’re the best).

Carne Adovada

13 March 2011: At many New Mexican restaurants when an entree includes a side of, but does not necessarily showcase, enchiladas, the enchiladas are an after-thought, generally not very good. That’s not the case at El Bruno’s. While carnitas may be the starring attraction of the aforementioned Carnitas a la Mex, the enchiladas are main entree quality. They are engorged with cheese and topped with your choice of red, green or Christmas style chile.  The chile won’t set off any fire alarms with its piquancy, but it’s got a good flavor.  The beans and rice are topped with melted yellow and white Cheddar. Garnish includes not only the perfunctory lettuce, but large sprigs of parsley (which has wonderful flavor ameliorating qualities and should not be solely relegated to plate decoration). 

29 March 2015: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, recently took umbrage with a “top five carne adovada” list compiled on Newscastic by a culinary novice.  Larry’s own list begins with the sublime carne adovada at the incomparable Mary & Tito’s Cafe followed by the superb carne adovada at El Bruno.  Larry describes it as “very tasty and succulent marinated pork was fork tender, and among the best in the city.”  How can you argue with that?  El Bruno’s carne adovada is indeed fork tender and delicious, each tender tendril of marinated pork falling apart at the press of a fork.  My Kim enjoys the carne adovada with two fried eggs.

The Chaco Burger – a half-pound burger with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo

16 March 2011: The “Los Burgers” menu features six half-pound burgers, including one served on a tortilla with green chile.  Just as it’s not every great Italian restaurant that can make a decent pizza, not every great New Mexican restaurant can char-grill a decent burger.  My frequent dining compañero Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I arrived at that conclusion after a couple of bites each of our burgers, both of which arrived at medium-well though we requested medium-rare and medium respectively.  Mine was a Chaco Burger which is embellished with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo.  The combination of caramelized onions and chipotle mayo is very sweet (much like a caramelized onion relish) and there weren’t enough blue cheese crumbles to provide any contrast (and I like my blue cheese breath-wrecking strong).  If there was any bite to the chipotle, it, too, was obfuscated by the sweet caramelized onions. 

4 December 2011: Growing up in Northern New Mexico, fishing the pristine cold-water streams was a favorite pastime, but my brothers and I were pescatarian snobs.  During camping trips into the wilderness where we subsisted solely on fish we caught, we threw back any rainbow trout which had made their way upstream from where they were stocked.  Our taste buds craved New Mexico’s official state fish (yes, we do have one), the cutthroat trout, the most delicate and delicious of all fish you can find in the Land of Enchantment.   Rainbow trout, we believed, were strictly for tourists and if we did take them home, we fed them to our neighbor’s chickens who pecked them to pieces and chased each other around the coop playing a combination of take-away and tackle.  It was great fun at the time.

Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout: Pan-seared, topped with mango salsa and served with mango salsa, red chile-dusted papitas and a salad

4 December 2011: Thanks to a recommendation from the professor of the perspicacious palate Larry McGoldrick–or more accurately, his better half Jane who became besotted of an entree showcasing rainbow trout, my own opinion may have been forever changed. El Bruno’s  piñon crusted rainbow trout is butterflied and pan-seared to a golden-hue then topped with a mango salsa–not enough to make the trout “fruity tasting,” but just enough to provide a light contrast to the delicate, fresh taste of the trout.  The piñon crust is also delicate with barely a hint of the woodsy tasting nut.  The trout is served atop a bed of fried spinach, a unique dish first created by the brilliant entrepreneur Tom Hamilton of the sublime Hamilton Chop House outside Durango.  It’s served with a generous mound of red chile-dusted papitas and a garden salad (make sure you request the green chile ranch dressing). 

4 December 2011: It stands to reason that because of the pride El Bruno takes in preparing its carnitas, the fajitas would be something special and indeed they are.  Sizzling strips of sirloin arrive at your table on a hot metal plate.  The fajitas are served with sauteed onions and bell peppers, grated white and yellow Cheddar cheese, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and flour tortillas.  It’s the sirloin which stands out most because it’s a much higher quality cut than skirt steak which is typically used for fajitas.  It’s chop house quality steak and it goes very well with whatever other ingredients you wish to use in crafting your meal.

Fajitas sizzling on a plate

Driving a few miles through the concrete urban jungle to get to El Bruno’s isn’t nearly as scenic as the 75-mile drive along Highway 550, but it’s a drive many Duke City diners have already started to make.  The parking lots are as full now as they were during the halcyon days of Garduño’s and the food is so much better.

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina
8806 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-0444
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 29 March 2015
1st VISIT:  13 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carnitas con Papitas, Carnitas a la Mex, Chips and Salsa, Fajitas, Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout, Carne Adovada, Shrimp Ceviche

El Bruno's Restaurante y Cantina (ABQ) on Urbanspoon

Lucky Boy – Albuquerque, New Mexican

Sr. Plata stands in front of Albuquerque's Lucky Boy restaurant where East meets West and green chile cheeseburgers meet egg rolls.

Sr. Plata stands in front of Albuquerque’s Lucky Boy restaurant where East meets West and green chile cheeseburgers meet egg rolls.

During its seventh season, the X Files television series in which FBI agents investigated paranormal phenomena featured an episode in which a ravenous Lucky Boy employee in California struggled against his craving for human brain matter (almost anything goes in the Golden state). The most paranormal thing about the Duke City Lucky Boy is its “east meets west” dining concept. Nowhere else in town can you order Chinese and American food so inexpensively and from the very same menu.

If you think about it, ordering inexpensive Chinese and American food from within one menu shouldn’t be such an anomalous event–especially when you consider that many of Lucky Boy’s patrons are UNM students, many of whom know how to stretch a buck. It’s not just UNM students who patronize this hole-in-the-wall. You might just as soon find faculty and staff also indulging in inexpensive (but good) food.

Lucky Boy's genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy’s genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy is a quintessential American mom and pop  diner tended lovingly by Chinese proprietors named Suzy and Ron who know what many of their customers are going to order as soon as they walk in. You’ll do a second-take the first time you see a steaming wok preparing noodles next to the sizzling griddle on which burger patties are being cooked.  Lucky Boy has been around since 1968 and it shows.  The restaurant is somewhat bedraggled and is certainly dated with 1960s style paneling on the walls and well-trodden tile on the floor.

Lucky Boy’s green chile cheeseburger is six inches of well seasoned meat and standard (lettuce, pickles, tomato, onions) but high quality condiments, including a tangy Day-Glo colored mustard and ketchup sauce the proprietors refer to as Lucky Boy sauce. The green chile is flavorful and more piquant than at many New Mexican restaurants and proprietors of the green chile cheeseburger (Lotaburger comes to mind).  The buns are lightly toasted, but so thick they obfuscate the flavor of the burger. The beef patties have the telltale signs of having been frozen.  They’re also quite thin so you’ll want to order a double meat burger.  Lest I forget, expect your burger to be prepared at medium-well to well.  Despite these shortcomings, you might be surprised to find yourself craving one or three of them.

Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger with Onion Cakes

Lucky Boy was one of 48 restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys selected for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a celebration of New Mexico’s iconic burger.  When I proposed its entry to the four person team which put the Trail together, there was more than a little sniggering, but since then, several team members have expressed their appreciation for what is actually a pretty good green chile cheeseburger.  Being on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail placed it in select…make that elite, company.  It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call Lucky Boy’s green chile cheeseburger one of the city’s most popular, if not best of its genre.

The menu also includes an Egg Foo Young sandwich, a culinary curiosity served in St. Louis where it’s called a “St. Paul sandwich” and which you won’t find in Minnesota. At Lucky Boy, you can have the Egg Foo Yong sandwich alongside a hamburger beef patty and the condiments which normally accompany a burger (including the aforementioned Lucky Boy sauce, chile and green chile). It’s a great sandwich with or without the beef patty!  It’s become a favorite of my friend Sr. Plata.

Sr. Plata holds a Egg Foo Young sandwich with green chile, meat and cheese from Lucky Boy

Sr. Plata holds a Egg Foo Young sandwich with green chile, meat and cheese from Lucky Boy

Lucky Boy’s French fries are only so-so (fairly standard).  A better bet are onion cakes, which are rather dissimilar to the scallion pancakes served at many Chinese restaurants.  Their flavor profile is more akin to onion rings though much thicker and more heavily breaded.  Biting into the sweet onion is a treat, but you’ll have to get through the breading first.

While we’ve found the chocolate shakes to be rather gloppy and bland, Lucky Boy has managed to escape the slavitude of the Coke and Pepsi monopolies.  You can actually get an RC Cola (remember those?) or a Diet Rite soda in a can.  A can, by the way, is a much more sanitary way to indulge in soft drinks (another of my soapbox tirades saved for another day).

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Chinese fare includes sweet and sour pork, Mandarin chicken and other American favorites. We’ve  observed that there’s almost a fifty/fifty split among patrons ordering burgers and Chinese food.  The sweet and sour chicken is pretty much what you’d expect for the pittance at which it’s offered.  It’s rather heavily breaded and topped with a lacquered-on orange sauce that emphasizes the sweet component of sweet and sour.  It’s not gourmet Chinese food, but it is what you expect and appreciate most when funds are low.

Lucky Boy is much more than an anomaly worth visiting only for the experiential aspect.  It serves a genuinely good green chile cheeseburger as well as other surprisingly good items.  You can’t beat the prices and the service is warm and genial.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

Lucky Boy
3521 Constitution, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-2785
LATEST VISIT: 11 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Egg Foo Yong Sandwich

Lucky Boy on Urbanspoon

The Mine Shaft Tavern – Madrid, New Mexico

The Mine Shaft Tavern is a very popular eatery and watering hole on the Turquoise Trail

The Mine Shaft Tavern, home to one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico

“You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don’t you call me cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store
.”

Those immortal lyrics, hauntingly performed by crooner Tennessee Ernie Ford describe with a poignant reality, the plight of the American miner even onto the 20th century.  By payday, which came at month’s end, miners did indeed owe their souls to the company–for the company house in which they were living, for groceries to feed their families, for doctor bills and even for the tools they used to mine.

They were paid in scrip which could only be spent at the company store, leaving them no choice but to buy from the companies. Despicably, this allowed the company to gouge the miners with vastly over-inflated prices, leaving miners with families inextricably in debt to the company.  When they got paid at month’s end, any money left after settling their debts to the company was insufficient to last through the following month. This vicious cycle was perpetuated the following month when miners again had to pay the company first and were lucky to have anything left for their families.

The capacious Mine Shaft Tavern Dining Room

Although many miners of the age toiled under hazardous working conditions and in virtual indentured servitude  while despotic mine owners and managers benefited from their labors, Madrid’s superintendent of mines Oscar Huber was a unique sort.  Under his direction, the citizenry of Madrid enjoyed unlimited electricity in their homes courtesy of the company-owned power plant, paved streets, schools, a company store and even a hospital.  Commerce was still controlled by the company, however, so miners wages ultimately returned back to the owners’ pockets. 

When given the opportunity, the miners played as hard as they worked. In 1922, Huber built the first illuminated baseball park (still in use today) west of the Mississippi.  The stadium served as home to the Madrid Miners, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers who played a game in the park in 1934.  Madrid was also home to one of the most elaborate and famous Christmas light displays in America.  From the 1920s through the advent of World War II, Madrid miners lit up the sky with 150,000 Christmas lights powered by 500,000 kilowatt hours of electricity provided by the company’s coal-fed generators.   Commercial planes used to divert from their normal routes in order to fly over Madrid so passengers could enjoy the pageantry.

The famous bar at the Mine Shaft Tavern

The last “company town” building erected in Madrid was the Mine Shaft Tavern whose doors opened in 1946. Within the tavern only those familiar with the difficult mining conditions pause to reflect on that heart-wrenching aspect of Madrid’s colorful history. Other patrons are there to have a good time thanks to tavern quality food and libations which flow freely.

The Mine Shaft Tavern is especially popular with old hippies and Harley Davidson enthusiasts whose “hogs” take up many of the parking spaces. The bikers congregate on the porch where they have an excellent vantage point from which to admire their bikes and those of their fellow easy riders. The tavern’s dimly lit interior appears relatively unchanged since the 1940s with canned lights that are indeed made from tin cans. Above the longest stand-up bar in New Mexico, a series of paintings by renown artist Ross J. Ward depicts Madrid’s colorful history.

A better view of some of the paintings just above the bar

From a culinary perspective only, our inaugural visit to the Mine Shift Tavern back in 2005 was a disappointment.  The menu was rather lackluster and the quality of fare was pedestrian.  It might best be described as “company store quality.”   Marked improvement was evident during my second visit in 2011 when I dined at the Mine Shaft Tavern for a “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” article in New Mexico Magazine.  What a difference a change of ownership can make!  In 2009, Lori Lindsey purchased the Mine Shift Tavern and has made it not only “Madrid’s living room,” but one of its best dining rooms.

The menu features “New Mexico Roadhouse Cuisine” showcasing a number of specialty burgers, grilled pizza and specials such as enchiladas, fish and chips and a smoked barbecue sandwich.  Dinner specials are available from Thursday through Sunday after 5PM.  They include a Wagyu “Baseball Cut” Sirloin, Shrimp Brochette and Wild Mushroom Pasta.  If it’s been a while since your last visit to the Mine Shaft Tavern, you might be surprised at how much more varied and inviting the menu now is.  The kitchen’s “mission statement says it best: We take pride in making food from scratch using quality and organic ingredients whenever possible.  Our famous burgers and “Kobe” comes right off the Turquoise Trail, from Bonanza Creek Ranch and Lone Mountain Ranch.”

The Mine Shaft Tavern Stage

With a New Mexican beef pedigree like that, you’ve got to order one of the Tavern’s six specialty burgers which are available from your choice of half-pound Angus, New Mexico Wagyu, Buffalo or Veggie.  The newest specialty burger was created in 2014 for the second annual green chile cheeseburger smackdown in Santa Fe.  It’s called the “Mad Chile Burger” for good reason–because most New Mexicans are absolutely mad about green chile.  The more, the better!  If this describes you, you’ll love the duo of roasted green chile and lightly battered and fried green chile strips.  The Mad Chile Burger also includes a half-pound black Angus Chuck, aged Cheddar and Chipotle Dijonaisse on a Brioche Bun with garnish (pickles, tomatoes, lettuce) on the side.

When I ordered the Mad Chile Burger, my server (who also happens to be owner Lori Lindsey’s niece) was very prophetic in telling me it would be the winning green chile cheeseburger in the Smackdown two days later.  I was skeptical until my second bite when the Chipotle Dijonaisse kicked it.  With the heat-generating triumvirate of roasted and chopped green chile, battered and fried green chile and Chipotle Dijonaisse, this burger blesses you with three times the love and three times the flavor you get from most green chile cheeseburgers.  The battered and fried green chile strips, similar to a chile relleno without the cheese, are especially addictive.  The Chipotle Dijonaisse has the tanginess of mustard with the piquant kick of chipotle, a combination which renders mustard unnecessary.  In fact, to add anything else to this burger would be to desecrate it.  It is simply one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico.  Smackdown attendees obviously agreed, according the Mad Chile Burger the “people’s choice” award for 2014.

The Mad Chile Burger with black and tan onion rings

All burgers are served with your choice of fresh cut French fries or coleslaw.  For a pittance more, you can substitute a salad, sweet potato fries or black and tan onion rings.  Better still, order an appetizer-sized Hatch green chile basket, the same fried, fire-roasted Hatch green chiles found on the Mad Chile Burger.  Served with Ranch dressing, these green chiles will give you yet another reason to be mad about green chile.

Fittingly, the Mine Shaft Tavern is on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail and was also recognized by the New Mexico Tourism Department as a Culinary Treasure.

The Mine Shaft Tavern
2846 State Highway 14
Madrid, New Mexico
(505) 473-0743
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 September 2014
1st VISIT: 30 May 2005
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Mad Chile Burger, Black and Tan Onion Rings

The Mine Shaft Tavern on Urbanspoon

Stray Dog Cantina – Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Stray Dog Cantina at the Taos Ski Valley

There’s a rather ominous sign on the base of the Taos Ski Valley.  In bold red uppercase print, the sign reads “DON’T PANIC!,” a preface for somewhat more reassuring text: “YOU’RE LOOKING AT ONLY 1/30 OF TAOS SKI VALLEY.  WE HAVE MANY EASY RUNS TOO!”  To novice skiers, the steepness of the ski runs visible from the base may as well be the “I’d turn back if I were you” sign Dorothy and her friends encountered when they entered the Haunted Forest on the way to the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.  No doubt the less skilled schussers turn tail like the Cowardly Lion and head for flatter topography. 

There’s another boldface type warning at another Taos Ski Valley landmark.  This one is for the meek of taste bud and gastrointestinal system.  The menu at the Stray Dog Cantina warns “Caution: Our chile is not for amateurs.  It’s extra tasty, but it can be spicy – it is serious chile.”  It’s obvious this warning is intended primarily for out-of-state visitors unaccustomed to their food biting back.  For citizens of the Land of Enchantment, such a warning is akin to a red flag being waved at a charging bull.  We see it as a challenge, another test for our manliness (being the more mature and intelligent gender, women don’t fall for such challenges) and an opportunity to show off our asbestos-lined constitutions. Not to mention some of us really dig this stuff when it’s packing heat. Then there are others who believe pain is a flavor.

The Pet-Friendly Patio at Stray Dog Cantina

With a name such as Stray Dog Cantina, it’s only fitting that this long-time Taos Ski Valley apres-ski favorite is one of only two pet-friendly restaurants in the Taos area.  The genesis of the unique name seems to be consigned to history and, in fact, some regulars still refer to it as “Tim’s Place” while throughout the internet, references to “Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina” abound.  Tim would be co-founder Tim Harter who died in an avalanche while backcountry skiing beyond Taos Ski Valley boundaries in 1996.  

While the “Tim’s” portion of the name was removed in 2009 when Harter’s family sold the cantina, at least “Stray Dog”  portion seems a permanent fixture.  Fittingly, the women’s softball team sponsored by the Stray Dog is called the “Stray Bitches.”  Their trophies are on display on the first floor which is part dining room (complete with picnic tables and wooden benches) and all bar.  On one second story wall, you’ll find a painting of New Mexico’s most spectacular mountain, The Jicarita, by the delightful Leigh Gusterson.  The Jicarita which backdrops Peñasco (pandering to my hometown) is about 35 miles from the Taos Ski Valley.

Frito Pie

Save for closing for a few weeks in spring after ski season, The Stray Dog is open year-round.  The vibe is certainly different in the winter when pristine white powder blankets the area.  Our inaugural visit, about a month before the autumnal equinox, was a weekend escape from the heat of the Duke City.  It was a good 25 degrees cooler at the Taos Ski Valley, prompting some visitors to don attire more appropriate for the winter.  The pet-friendly patio hugs the Stray Dog and provides magnificent views of the towering evergreens.  The al fresco experience is heightened by the sound of water cascading along a babbling brook directly beneath the wooden planks of the patio. 

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Stray Dog offers an interesting menu replete with familiar New Mexican favorites and some unique creations heretofore unseen.  Red chile is sourced from Chimayo.  It’s a vegetarian chile ameliorated only by garlic and fresh vegetables.   All beef sold on the premises comes from New Mexico.  Among the more interesting dishes on the menu is the Hawaiian inspired Local Loco which is loosely patterned after the Aloha State’s “Loco Moco,” a dish many Spanish-speaking New Mexicans might find off-putting in that “moco” translates from Spanish to “mucus.”  You get the feeling the creator of Stray Dog’s menu knew this.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Save for a unique starter named the “Mexican Suzie Sushi” (blue corn-battered chile relleno wrapped in a tortilla, cut like sushi and served on red or green chile), the appetizers are similar to those you’d find at many New Mexican restaurants.  Because the salsa was laced with hemlock…er, cumin, we opted out of anything on the appetizers menu and shared a Frito pie (a bowl of Frito’s corn chips topped with beans, red chile, cheese, onion, lettuce, chopped jalapeños and sour cream).  It was our first opportunity to sample the chile about which we were warned.  As surmised, that warning wasn’t intended for red (chile) blooded New Mexicans.  The only heat discernible came from the chopped jalapeños.  The purity and deliciousness of the chile made up for its lack of piquancy.  It’s a very tasty chile, the highlight of an otherwise good Frito pie. 

Though the Local Loco beckoned, as one of the quadrumvirate who put the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail together, it is always my patriotic duty to order a green chile cheeseburger, by far the most popular item on the menu (even among tourists).  The green chile cheeseburger is constructed with Angus beef which is topped with green chile blanketed by melted Cheddar cheese.  Both mayo and mustard are slathered on the top bun with pickles, onions and tomatoes on the side.  The hand-formed beef patty doesn’t quite cover the bun, but what there is of it is terrific, reminiscent of a grilled steak and what it lacks in circumference is more than made up for in thickness and deliciousness.  As with the red chile on the Frito pie, the green chile didn’t pack much of a punch.

Green Chile Stew with Side of Beans

In order to restore homeostasis under extreme conditions (sixty degrees with a stiff breeze), New Mexicans crave the salubrious elixir of green chile stew.  We crave it because it nurtures us with two types of heat–the heart-warming heat of cold-defeating temperature and the heat of piquancy.   The Stray Dog’s version must be very popular at winter, primarily because it helps offset the cold (and, who knows, visitors may even discern a piquant bite).  For us, the green chile, while flavorful, was rather insipid, lacking the second type of heat New Mexicans crave.  It’s not a bad green chile stew, but we would have enjoyed it more had it brought sweat to our brows and blisters to our tongues.  Available with chicken or pork (shredded), the green chile stew is cloaked in white and yellow Cheddar.   

While the warning about the chile was wholly unnecessary for us, those steep mountain trails almost make me thankful that knees wrecked from playing football can no longer schuss down precipitous mountain trails.  Whether or not you ski, the Stray Dog Cantina is a great place for relaxing in the company of your four-legged children.

Stray Dog Cantina
105 Sutton Place
Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
(575) 776-2894
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Frito Pie, Green Chile Stew

Tim's Stray Dog Cantina on Urbanspoon

Magdalena Cafe – Magdalena, New Mexico

The Magdalena Cafe and Steakhouse

In 1863 during the height of the Civil War, soldiers on leave from Fort Craig staked claims to silver strikes in the Magdalena Mountains.  Within a few years, the boom towns of Kelly and Magdalena had sprung up, eventually achieving a population surpassing even Socorro, the county seat.  The first veins of metal ore given up by the rocky promontories were lead and zinc, but ultimately silver became the principal source of wealth. 

With the arrival of the railroad in 1884, Magdalena became a rowdy frontier mining town and one of the Southwest’s largest cattle shipping centers with its stockyards processing thousands of cattle and sheep.  Magdalena became known as the “Trails End” because the spur line which originated in Socorro had its terminus in the town named for the likeness of Mary Magdalene on a nearby slope.  The railroad transported cattle, sheep, wool, timber and wool.  It also transported carloads of ore to a smelter outside of Socorro.

Dining Room at the Magdalena Cafe and Steakhouse

No vestiges of the railroad remain, but it’s easy to imagine how spectacular the 20 meandering miles from Socorro to Magdalena must have been by train.  That’s because Highway 60 approximates the route of the railroad line nicknamed “the elevator” because it climbed two-thousand feet in roughly sixteen miles.  Highway 60 snakes its way past dramatic gorges, impressive boulders and large cattle ranches to emerge on the plains outside Magdalena.  It’s a magnificent drive. 

Today, instead of metalliferous lodes, Magdalena’s principal source of richness just may be its deep appreciation of its history and traditions.  Several historic buildings–including the railroad depot which has been repurposed as the town’s city hall and library–have survived, some serving as homes to active businesses or private homes.  Every year on the second weekend of July, Magdalena hosts its “Old Timers Reunion,” a three-day event celebrating the “good ole days” with such events as a rodeo, parade, street dance, arts and crafts and barbecue.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Situated roughly at the geographical center of Socorro County, Magdalena can also boast of a presence on the prestigious New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a distinction the Magdalena Cafe shares with two other Socorro county purveyors of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct sandwich.  Magdalena is little more than half an hour away from San Antonio, New Mexico, the home of the world-famous Owl Cafe and the nearly-as-famous Buckhorn Tavern. but its green chile cheeseburger has yet to achieve the fame of its burger brethren.  Attribute that to the perception that Magdalena an “out-of-the-way” and “off-the-beaten path” destination. 

Adventurous diners who do trek to Magdalena will be rewarded with a spectacular drive to a beautiful frontier town which embraces its history and embodies hospitality.  They’ll also discover a green chile cheeseburger which some say rivals its Socorro county counterparts for sheer deliciousness.  The Magdalena Cafe sits on Main Street, not quite a block south of Highway 60.  Though it didn’t launch until 1986, the building housing the Cafe dates from the turn of the twentieth century.

Ground Beef Tacos

While its full appellation is Magdalena Cafe & Steakhouse, the Cafe has somewhat abbreviated serving hours with very distinct breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.  Dinner is when steak makes it onto the menu, but dinner is served only on Thursday and Friday nights from 5PM to 7PM.  Breakfast and lunch are served Monday through Saturday from 7AM to 1:30PM.   The menus offer a hearty repast befitting all hungry and weary road-warriors. It includes burgers, hot sandwiches, milk shakes, steaks, homemade pies and so much more. 

The green chile cheeseburger is nearly the size of one of the Very Large Array’s (only 24 miles away) antennas and unlike some burgers, you won’t need a radio astronomy observatory to find the beef.  The hand-formed ground beef patty extends beyond the six-inch buns and probably weighs in at eight or nine ounces.  At medium-well, it’s still got plenty of juices and flavor.  The green chile is sourced from Sichler Farms during chile harvesting season. It’s a very nicely roasted chile with a discernible, but not overpowering, bite. Standard toppings include lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions.   This five-napkin burger takes a backseat to no other burger, not even its neighbors to the east.  It’s a top tier green chile cheeseburger in its own right…and as if a behemoth burger isn’t enough, an order of French fries is nearly the size of a cord of wood.

Banana Split Pie

After Bob of the Village People commented about a taco shell “with a 1/2 inch flat bottom so Mamacitas could easily sit it on the food prep board to easily fill it,” it dawned on me that I’d never had such a hard-shelled travesty (largely because my preference is for soft-shelled tacos and hard-shelled tacos were invented by Taco Bell).  By sheer coincidence, an a la carte order of two tacos at the Magdalena Cafe was constructed from the flat-bottom shells Bob mentioned.  The flat-bottom not only makes filling these tacos easier, it allows for more filling.  In this case, a generous amount of seasoned ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomatoes and shredded cheese.   As hard-shelled tacos go, these were quite good, especially when salsa is applied.

Not only is the Magdalena Cafe within easy driving distance of New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburger Mecca, it’s less than an hour from the Land of Enchantment’s fabled Pie Town.  If the New Mexico Tourism Department ever decides to create a “Pie Trail,” the Magdalena Cafe belongs among the pantheon of peerless pies.  An apple pie is featured fare daily, but the menu also includes a mouthwatering selection of fruit and non-fruit fresh-baked goodness.  My request for my server to “surprise me” actualized with a slice of banana split pie.  That’s banana split, not banana cream.  Whatever image you might be contriving as to what this pie  might be will fall shortAtop a perfectly crumbly crust is a layer of sliced bananas topped with a luscious chocolate filling and whipped cream. It’ll make a convert out of you.

The Magdalena Cafe is the quintessential small town cafe in a small town every New Mexican should visit at least once (though a return trip is ensured after one visit and one meal).

Magdalena Cafe
109 Main Street
Magdalena, New Mexico
(575) 854-2696
LATEST VISIT: 9 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Ground Beef Tacos, Banana Split Pie, Lemonade

Magdalena Cafe on Urbanspoon

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