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

K&I Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The famous K&I Diner, Serving Albuquerque Since 1960

In 1960, Albuquerque’s population reached 201,189, more than doubling the city’s tally from the 1950 census. The start of a new decade began an era of expansion, a construction boom in which the burgeoning city began experiencing unprecedented growth. A proliferation of shopping centers was built to serve new neighborhoods.  Albuquerque was not yet overrun by horrendous, copycat chain restaurants; family owned and operated mom-and-pop dining establishments–like the K&I Diner–were (and still are) your best bet for a great meal.

1960 (March 2nd to be exact) was also the year in which Irene Warner opened Grandma’s K&I Diner (named for her daughter Kay Hess and herself) in the heart of Albuquerque’s industrial district in the far South Valley. She ran the eatery with her family for 39 years until her death at age 82 in 1999.  The matronly Irene was a fixture at her restaurant, a kind and gentle woman who made everyone welcome at her restaurant home. With a pronounced Southern drawl, she and her family kept things lively, often addressing their faithful patrons by “honey” or “sugar.”

The ghostly image in the background isn't Travis, the mysterious customer for whom the K&I Diner's most famous entree is named. It's Bill Resnik, the artist who painted this masterpiece displayed in the front dining room of the K&I.

The ghostly image in the background isn’t Travis, the mysterious customer for whom the K&I Diner’s most famous entree is named. It’s Bill Resnik, the artist who painted this masterpiece displayed in the front dining room of the K&I.

The restaurant has undergone several ownership changes since Grandma Warner passed away, but other than  some polish and veneer, pretty much left everything the same. For that Albuquerque diners are grateful.  The decor features antique brickerbrack donated by customers. Old stoves, a Pepsi dispenser (from back when a bottle of cold Pepsi cost ten cents), tube-operated radios and more eye-catching antiques will keep your interest while some placards may surprise you at how ribald humor was fifty or sixty years ago. One placard reads “big busted women float better.”

Ask anyone who’s been in Albuquerque for a few years and they can all recount their favorite memories of dining at the K&I. Most of them probably involve the “Travis,” a bean and seasoned beef burrito topped with cheese and chile then piled high with French fries. It’s an unlikely combination, but also a uniquely New Mexican one. The Travis is available in five sizes, the descriptions below of which are taken from the menu:

This behemoth is a quarter Travis.

This behemoth is a quarter Travis.

    • Travis on A Silver Platter – You’d better bring lots of friends to attempt this. Of course, if you can eat it by yourself in an hour or less and we mean ALL of it, it’s free.  It weighs over eight pounds and has been surmounted by only two people in the 40 years plus that it’s been available.
    • Full TravisEven the biggest of appetites would have a hard time finishing this one.
    • Half TravisIt can be done, but you’d better be happy.
    • Quarter TravisThis is the most popular size (pictured above), but some still need a to-go box.
    • Wimp TravisFor those who just don’t feel up to the challenge.

The Travis on a Silver Platter is a full six pounds and the platter on which it is served is big enough for the Thanksgiving turkey. A Wimp Travis is big enough for most people, but most men will order at least a quarter Travis or they risk being drummed out of the XY chromosome club.  As it approaches your table, your first inclination will be to wonder where the burrito is.  The mountain of fries covers every other component on the dish.  Like a treasure-hunter, you’ll have to get through several layers of fries before you get to the burrito.  The fries are excellent.

A half Travis

When he traveled to Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) a stop at Grandma Warner’s K&I Diner was a must for host Adam Richman.  No longer an active competitor in man’s quest to eat ridiculous amounts of food, Richman recruited three Albuquerque residents–all named Travis–to test their gurgitator’s mettle against the Travis on a Silver Platter:  three flour tortillas, beef and beans, sausage-infused red chile and shredded Cheddar.  Once folded over, the burrito is covered over with green chile, cheese and a lettuce-tomato garnish  topped with a mountain of French fries.  Richman called the challenge an “indomitable feat of manhood,” and “maybe the hardest challenge we’ve ever shown.”

Given an hour to consume the entire platter’s worth of food, the three Travises (a student at UNM, a meteorologist for a local television station and a professional bull rider) were unable to surmount the challenge despite the urging of the crowd (which included UNM cheerleaders and Lobo Louie) and Richman’s encouragement.

Bert’s Mess

My own personal memories of the K&I Diner also involve the Travis. While stationed at Kirtland in the early 1980s, we used to take the dreaded Inspector General (IG) staff to the K&I and challenge them to finish a full Travis. Our hopes were that the IG staffers would get so full that drowsiness would set in after lunch and they wouldn’t be quite as nit-picky in their assessments. This usually worked with new staffers, but veteran IG members ultimately figured out our ploy. Still, they all enjoyed the K&I Diner as much as we did and made it a regular stop during their inspection tours of Kirtland.

Today, Air Force personnel (and no doubt, the infamous IG) still frequent the K&I Diner which despite four separate dining areas is usually packed for both breakfast and lunch. Newcomers with the gumption to try still think they have the mettle to consume an entire Travis, but invariably fail miserably (coincidentally miserable is the gastronomic state of anyone who succeeds).

The Leo

Elise Hunnicutt, a Del Norte High graduate now residing in deepest, darkest Westchester, New York shares one of her favorite K&I and Travis memories from the winter of 1982.  “The K&I was a favorite lunchtime stop for me when I worked for the Pepsi bottler in Albuquerque. I took two co-workers there one chilly day and instructed them on the fine points of ordering the Travis special. At the time, you didn’t use the word “Travis” when ordering, instead just proclaiming “Quarter” or “Half!” Your waitress would then call out the orders to the guys doing the cooking behind the counter. On this particular trip, I ordered my usual quarter. The first of my colleagues, obviously not embracing my guidance, slammed his fist on the table and demanded a Half. My other companion had no interest in the Travis and asked instead for a cheeseburger. Our waitress turned quickly toward the kitchen and said, “Quarter and a Half! And would someone please go down to Blake’s and get this idiot a cheeseburger?”

My friend Bill Resnik recalls the time he goaded a “Travis virgin” into ordering a full Travis. The behemoth platter arrived minutes later with a Dum Dum sucker on top. The acid tongue (but with a heart of gold) waitress presented it with “here you go, sucker!” Another time he asked the waitress how the meatloaf was that particular day.  The waitress’s retort, “I wouldn’t have it if I were you.  Grandma made it.”  Grandma was notorious for putting any leftover she could find into the lasagna–including lime jello.  After about three visits, the wait staff got to know you and treated you like a sibling.

Chicken Fried Steak, Two Eggs and Hashed Browns

The days of verbal jousting with the waitresses are long past and some of the restaurant’s personality left with Irene’s family and staff, but the K&I is and always will be, a memorable restaurant. Several local restaurants (Hurricane’s and Twisters come to mind) have attempted to duplicate the Travis and while some claim the pretenders are just as good, K&I veterans will vehemently defend the Travis as an incomparable original. In 1980, the Travis was trademarked, but that hasn’t stopped the pretenders.

According to local legend, the Travis was born when a frequent visitor (in true Western fashion, embellishments say it was a mysterious stranger) to the K&I asked for a burrito with everything on it but the kitchen sink. That’s what he got! The K&I Diner serves more than the Travis. Breakfast and lunch portions can best be described as “heaping” with daily specials available every day of the week. Over the years, the diner has added several other unique entrees in which piles of French fries are the topper, but none have approached the legendary status of the Travis. 

Chiles Rellenos with Fries

2 March 2011: “Bert’s Mess” is a pile of hot, crisp French fries topped with chunks of ham, bacon and sausage  (the triumvirate of porcine perfection) then smothered with red or green chile and topped with two eggs, any style.  The chile, as chile is apt to do, varies in piquancy almost from day-to-day.  There are days in which the chile has the bite of a bell pepper.  Fortunately each table has several heat-generating condiments such as Cholula Hot Sauce and Tabasco Sauce.  Even if you consider it sacrilege to desecrate New Mexico green or red chile by adulterating it with other hot sauces, both Cholula and Tabasco go very well with the fries.  Forget the ketchup.

28 April 2007: The “Leo,” ostensibly named for another loyal customer is a plate piled high with French fries and topped with seasoned beef, cheese and your choice of red or green chile.  About the only thing missing from these calorie overachiever’s dream is an angioplasty.  It should come standard.  The cheese is like a molten melted blanket which covers the entirety of the other ingredients with only a few fries rearing their delicious tops.  French Canadians have their poutine; New Mexicans would rather have The Leo.  Fries and cheese can’t be bested.

Seven year old Stevie Sunday attempts to put a dent on a K&I pancake

12 February 2016: Being a Catholic eating at K&I Diner on a Lenten Friday means having to abstain from meat.  Few things in life are as torturous as watching your dining companion indulge on a Half Travis (which is replete with delicious seasoned beef) when you can’t have one.  Sure the K&I Diner has plenty of entrees sans carne, but when you’ve got your heart set on a Travis, nothing else will do.  Not even the K&I’s chile rellenos, two housemade chile rellenos smothered with your choice of red or green chile and served with beans and fries with a tortilla on the side.  Admittedly, my longing for a Travis would have been minimized had the green chile been at least a little piquant, but it was so wimpy I had to add several shakes of Tabasco sauce to wake it up (and you should never have to adulterate green chile).  Note to self: don’t visit the K&I during Lent.

2 March 2011: The K&I Diner’s chicken fried steak breakfast is one of the best of its kind found this side of Texas.  The chicken fried steak is at least half an inch thick, not some thinly-pounded, boot leather-tough slab as you’re apt to find in other Albuquerque eateries.  It’s covered in a peppered white gravy and is served with two eggs, a pile of hashed browns and sourdough bread toast on the side.  It’s a prodigious breakfast not for the faint of heart.  The chicken fried steak cuts easily, a very good sign and it’s not breaded so thickly that you have to send out a search party to find the actual beef.  Best of all, it’s very good.

For more than 55 years, the K&I Diner’s formula of atmosphere, quick and friendly service and hearty portions has proven successful. It has stood the test of time and is an American classic in the finest sense.

K&I Diner
2500 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-1881
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Travis, The Leo, Bert’s Mess, Pancakes, Chicken Fried Steak, Chiles Rellenos

K & I Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pepper Pot – Hatch, New Mexico

The Pepper Pot serves Mexican and American food

You might expect that a village renowned as the “chile capital of the world” could also boast of restaurants which showcase chile of such high quality that they would be veritable Meccas to which diners from throughout the state would pilgrimage.  With a population of 1,648 (as of the 2010 census), Hatch has fewer than ten restaurants, many of which do indeed seem to draw nearly as many visitors from outside of Hatch as they do local residents and most of which do indeed showcase red and green chile.  For New Mexican food, the one restaurant which most locals name as their very favorite is the Pepper Pot.

Located in a converted residence, the Pepper Pot still resembles a family home, the give-away that it’s a business being prominent signage on a concrete plant stand.  Homey exterior implements such as an old-fashioned push mower and a miniature John Deere tractor adorn the lawn.  When you step into the restaurant and seat yourself in one of the dining room’s sixteen tables, you might notice that the ambiance is laden with Catholic symbols.  Even the flowers painted above the arched doorways resemble the roses on Juan Diego’s tilma.  A bulletin board recounts the great Hatch flood of 2006.

The Pepper Pot restaurant in Hatch, New Mexico, the chile capital of the world

What is conspicuously absent is any mention or memorabilia of arguably the restaurant’s most famous visitor.  In August, 2008, the Travel Channel’s indefatigable host Anthony Bourdain dined at the Pepper Pot during a filming of his No Reservations show.  His dining companions were Judd Nordyke (mayor of Hatch) and his lovely better half Marcia (coordinator of the Hatch Chile Festival) who schooled Bourdain on the fine points of red and green chile.  Bourdain declared Pepper Pot’s enchiladas “the best red enchiladas of his life.”

My friend and fellow gastronome Ruben Hendrickson was even more effusive about the red chile at the Pepper Pot, a chile he compared favorably to the sublime red chile at Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque (a chile sourced from the Delgado Farms in Hatch).  He praised its lack of residual bitterness so prevalent in many red chiles and boasted of its smooth, earthy flavor.  Ruben is a realist, however, and is quite familiar with Murphy’s Law which posits that the more you brag about a restaurant, the more it will disappoint when you take guests with you.  Ruben and I visited on September 11, 2012, scant days after the Hatch Chile Festival.

One of the dining rooms at the Pepper Pot restaurant on a Tuesday lunch hour

As we perused the menu, we were surprised at how quiet the restaurant was. Conversations were in low, hushed tones.  Churches are more boisterous.  We theorized that the food is so good, it deserves the diners’ rapt attention.  The dining room was more than half full with a mix of locals and wide-eyed visitors.  The telltale sign that local farmers were also dining at the Pepper Pot was the long-sleeved (on an 85-degree day) shirts and hats they wore.  We surmised there were at least a few chile-heads in the premises, too.

The Pepper Pot is owned and operated by sisters Melva Aguirre and Rosaria Varela who prepare all dishes from scratch.  Their restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch.  Their chile is obtained locally from the Lytle family, generations of which have farmed in the Hatch Valley since the late 1800s.  Jim Lytle, the patriarch of the family, developed the fabled Big Jim chile pepper which is featured prominently on Pepper Pot’s cuisine.

Salsa and chips

As you peruse the menu–a two-page compendium of New Mexican food with some American favorites (mostly burgers, salads and sandwiches) interspersed–a basket of chips and bowl of salsa will be delivered gratis.  The salsa is chunky and fresh, a mix of tomatoes, onions and jalapeños with a hint of cilantro.  It’s not an especially piquant salsa, but has a very nice flavor.  The chips, definitely not uniform in size, appear to be housemade from corn tortilla shells.

Enchiladas are available with your choice of  cheese or ground beef.  The cheese enchiladas are engorged with two cheeses and topped with even more cheese, resulting in a melting, molten mess of yellow and white deliciousness.  Add an fried egg over easy and you’ll have an even more beauteous runny mess.  Then there’s the red and green chile (you should try both).  The green chile is superb!  It’s the type of chile the Hatch Chamber of Commerce might select as an exemplar of what green chile should taste like.  It has a discernible fruitiness and a nice roasted flavor with a piquancy level of about medium.  Most plates are served with rice and beans, both of which are quite good.  The rice separates easily and isn’t clumpy as bad rice tends to be.  The beans are blanketed with a smattering of shredded cheese.

Enchiladas – Travel Network star Anthony Bourdain declared the Pepper Pot serves the best enchiladas ever!  The chile rellenos are also quite good.

Also quite good is a chile relleno.  It would have been outstanding had just a bit more attention to detail been paid in its preparation.  For example, the skin wasn’t completely peeled, resulting in the annoying texture of chile skin in your mouth.  The rellenos are moderately battered and are easy to cut into with a fork, a sign they’re well-made.  The chile envelope isn’t especially piquant, but the cheesy interior is bubbling hot and thoroughly delicious.

Eager to relive red chile memories of a past meal at the Pepper Pot, my friend Ruben ordered a plate of red chile with pork which also came with rice, beans and a flour tortilla.  One bite was all it took for him to discern this was not the same chile of his dreams.  It wasn’t the dreaded demon spice cumin which befouled its purity.  Instead, a surfeit of Mexican oregano was used which rendered astringent what was probably an outstanding chile.  The pork was cut into small pieces and might have been even better without chile (that chile, anyway).  My experiences with the red chile on my enchilada plate were similar to Ruben’s.  Thankfully I had green chile to fall back on.

Red chile with pork, beans, rice and a flour tortilla

On the strength of its green chile alone, the Pepper Pot Restaurant should be considered one of Southern New Mexico’s very best dining options.  It’s a restaurant worthy of being the local’s favorite for New Mexican food in the world’s chile capital.

Pepper Pot
207 West Hall Street
Hatch, New Mexico
(575) 267-3822
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas (Christmas Style), Red Chile with Pork, Chile Relleno, Salsa and Chips

Pepper Pot on Urbanspoon

Bobcat Bite – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

America's best burger is available only at the Bobcat Bite

America’s best burger is available only at the Bobcat Bite

Update:  In a twist of cruel irony, the Travel Channel’s May 13th airing of the Burger Land program celebrating the Bobcat Bite debuted just a few days after the announcement that the world-famous Bobcat Bite as we all know and love it will be forever changed.  An official statement from Bobcat Bite, issued on May 9th, announced the restaurant renowned for its outstanding green chile cheeseburger would shutter its doors in June, 2013.  The press release read: After 12 years, Bonnie and John Eckre will serve their last famous Bobcat Bite burger at the Old Las Vegas Highway location on June 9. They will be vacating the premises June 14th at the demand of the building’s owners, the Panzer family.”

In his celebration of America’s favorite dish, filmmaker George Motz traversed the fruited plain in search of some of the country’s most unique burgers for his 54-minute film Hamburger America . An avowed burger lover, he wasn’t necessarily trying to find and rank America’s best burgers per se. Instead, he feted eight restaurants in continuous operation for 40-plus years whose menus featured burgers made from fresh meat, not frozen, for those 40 years. One of the eight restaurants featured was Santa Fe’s own Bobcat Bite.

In his GQ magazine article “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die,” Alan Richman was more definitive in rating America’s best burgers. Taking the measure of 162 burgers across the country, Richman’s goal was to find “the best damned assemblage of ground beef and buns this country serves up.” He rated the Bobcat Bite the 12th best burger in America (but not the best burger in New Mexico; that honor went to the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio).

Bonnie Eckre, the heart and soul of the Bobcat Bite

Bonnie Eckre, the perpetually smiling heart and soul of the Bobcat Bite

In 2007, the Food Network aired a program called “Top American Restaurants – Bon Appetit Picks the Best” in which the editors of Bon Apetit magazine selected the “top places in this country to enjoy the ultimate incarnations of iconic American cuisine.” Among the iconic American cuisine feted were hamburgers. This category was won by Santa Fe’s Bobcat Bite–to the surprise of absolutely no one who has ever dined at this Santa Fe area treasure.

That’s high praise indeed, but accolades are nothing new for this Lilliputian restaurant (seating for only 26 patrons) which was also featured in March, 2000 edition of New Mexico magazine and, as previously mentioned, is held in high esteem by Michael and Jane Stern of Gourmet magazine and Roadfood.com.  In their terrific 2009 tome 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns rated the Bobcat Bite number one on their list of “must-eat” green chile cheeseburgers.  They wrote, “The meat in this extraordinary GCCB is extraordinarily tasty–high-quality beef, a full inch thick complemented but not overwhelmed by chile that is more tangy than hot.”

Shelves show off just a few of the many awards and accolades Bobcat Bite has earned over the year. Diners can find a Bobcat Bite shirt just their size, too.

When it comes to burgers, it’s all about the beef and that’s where Bobcat Bite has the edge over the competition. The owners still grind their beef daily on the premises, using only hormone-free chuck shoulder and chuck tenders then forming the patties by hand, careful to control fat content.  The 50-year old cast iron grill is wonderfully seasoned so that each burger is prepared with remarkable consistency.

Each burger is a thick and juicy 9.5 ounce slab of beautiful beef served with an American and Swiss cheese blend, green chile, lettuce and tomato. Mustard and ketchup are available on your table and you can ask for mayonnaise and sliced (or even better, grilled) onion if you’d like.  If you do opt to use a condiment on your burger, use it sparingly because it’s the beef that may bring tears of joy to your eyes.  The only steak in New Mexico even comparable to the utterly erotic deliciousness of the coarse ground beef patty at the Bobcat Bite is the peppery elk tenderloin at Geronimo.

A green chile cheeseburger in my meaty hands

A green chile cheeseburger in my meaty hands

It takes two hands to handle the gigantic green chile cheeseburger, but you could use a third hand to wipe your mouth.  I can palm a basketball easily, but as the photo above attests, my right meathook is challenged to hold the green chile cheeseburger at the Bobcat Bite.  At medium, this burger is pink through and through; it’s as juicy a burger as you’ll find anywhere (easily a five napkin burger) with beef being the prevalent flavor.  It’s an absolutely delicious beef which you can eat by itself; even mustard and ketchup might be considered desecration.

The restaurant goes through 80 pounds of green chile per week and it’s not the canned green chile variety other dining establishments serve.  That being said, the green chile doesn’t have much of, if any, bite.  It could be because it’s buried under a blanket of cheese which tops the inch-thick hamburger patty.  The lack of piquancy is the sole factor preventing an even higher rating for these treasures.

The world-famous Bobcat Bite green chile cheeseburger

The world-famous Bobcat Bite green chile cheeseburger

When I introduced my friend roastmaster nonpareil Bill Resnik to the Bobcat Bite, what he couldn’t get over is just how wonderful the restaurant smells. He told owner Bonnie Eckre (pictured) that she could make a million dollars if she could bottle the aroma of her sizzling burgers then suggested that aroma would make a great aftershave. It would leave men perpetually hungry.

While the Bobcat’s bounteous burgers are best known, the restaurant also serves excellent steak. About the prime ribeye steak, Michael Stern says, “there is none more delicious between Amarillo and L.A.” Even better than the ribeye is the 10-ounce New York strip steak which is perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and prepared exactly to your specifications.

A bacon green chile cheeseburger with homestyle potatoes

Burgers and steak aren’t the restaurant’s sole entrees. The menu also serves pork chops, a grilled chicken sandwich and a few other items, but most people order the burgers or steak.

There isn’t much on the menu (a tossed salad and coleslaw) for vegetarians, but the coleslaw is as good as it comes. Instead of the overly sweet salad dressing or mayo you’ll find on most coleslaw, the Bobcat Bite uses a tart, vinegary dressing. It’s not acidic enough to pucker your lips, but it is tangy and delicious with flecks of green pepper and very finely chopped slaw.

During winter months, the Bobcat rotates–between a New Mexico style green and a Texas style red–a bowl of chile (spelled New Mexico style). The Texas style red chile includes beans, ground beef and tomato and is almost soup-like. In fact, to thicken the sauce, you can add crackers and have a very good Texas chile soup (although Texans can’t spell and would call it “chili.”)

The Bobcat Bite's wonderful coleslaw

The Bobcat Bite’s wonderful coleslaw

The Bobcat Bite sits on a 100 acre ranch which used to be a working quarter horse ranch. Bobcats used to sit and perch on the restaurant’s roof and would come down from the mountains to get fed scraps tossed out the back door. No doubt that even the scraps at this wonderful little restaurant taste pretty good.

BOBCAT BITE
420 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 26
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Ribeye Steak, New York Steak, Potato Salad, Coleslaw

Bobcat Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Frontier Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Frontier Restaurant, a UNM area institution, but is it the “quintessential New Mexican restaurant.”

Most college and university areas have at least one restaurant that transcends the “student hang-out” label to become a popular dining destination among all demographics, whether or not the diners matriculated at the nearby institution of higher learning. In Albuquerque that dining destination is the Frontier Restaurant. In its forty plus years of serving the Duke City, the Frontier has gone beyond providing the quintessential college eatery experience. Some contend it may well be the quintessential New Mexican restaurant.

Serving Albuquerque since February, 1971, the commodious, barn-like Frontier Restaurant occupies half a city block (quite remarkable considering it started out as a small, one room eatery), seats more than 300 patrons and features an impressive gallery quality art collection which includes several portraits of John Wayne, a favorite of the owners (for whom the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning has named a gallery). The Frontier is a place to see and be seen. Everyone from UNM students to celebrities (in Albuquerque this is primarily the local television news media) and Lobo athletes frequents the Frontier.

Long lines typify dining at the Frontier Restaurant.

Long lines typify dining at the Frontier Restaurant.

The Frontier is the brainchild of Larry and Dorothy Rainosek, transplants from Austin, Texas, who have become among Albuquerque’s most altruistic citizens, contributing to a variety of causes (such as the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and The Albuquerque Museum). The Rainoseks, who also own the city’s four Golden Pride restaurants, didn’t really know about New Mexico’s red and green chile when they moved to the Land of Enchantment, but they learned quickly. Larry’s brother owns Gil’s Broiler (nice name), San Marco’s oldest restaurant which serves something called the “Manske Roll,” a butter-drenched sweet roll that inspired the Frontier Restaurant’s own fabled roll.

The Frontier is a restaurant in which memories are made and long held onto. Just as citizens of my generation remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, practically everyone in Albuquerque remembers their very first visit to the Frontier. It’s wholly unlike any other restaurant in the Duke City–an institution, a Route 66 landmark on historic Central Avenue and a bastion of inexpensive, but good food (it’s not hoity toity enough to be called cuisine).

The Frontier's western art collection features several paintings of John Wayne.

The Frontier’s western art collection features several paintings of John Wayne.

The Frontier has long been a refuge for UNM students, generations of which have studied long into the night in relative quiet (compared to a dorm room) and safety. For nearly two decades, it served studious or hungry patrons 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In October, 2006, operating hours were scaled down because fighting often ensued among drunken revelers who got the munchies after their favorite watering holes closed down.

They also keep diners well fed–feeding some 4,000 people on weekend mornings (200 to 300 “covers” per hour). The Frontier is staffed by some 170 employees, all of whom are in constant motion to keep up with the lines of hungry diners. Those diners queue five or six deep from the entrance to the long order counters, but the staff keeps things moving smoothly (Disney could learn a thing or two). The menu lists fifty-some items, mainly New Mexican food, burgers and sandwiches.

The world famous Frontier Roll

The world famous Frontier Roll

In July, 2009, USA Today published an article entitled “Ten Great Places to Eat Regionally, Eat Well.” Author Michael Stern who co-wrote the definitive 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late listed his ten favorite restaurants. On that list was the Frontier Restaurant. Considering Stern has dined at tens of thousands of restaurants, to be singled out as one of his ten favorite is a lofty accolade indeed.

On the 500 Things… tome, the Frontier Restaurant’s carne adovada was listed as the third best carne adovada in America. Calling it “the great bargain carne adovada–no less delicious for its $1.99 price–is a burrito at the Frontier in Albuquerque,” it was described as having “just enough chile-infused meat intense enough to turn the tortilla that wraps it the color of sunset.” The book also named the Frontier’s huevos rancheros as the second best among the genre throughout the Southwest.

Green chile stew at the Frontier Restaurant (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Green chile stew at the Frontier Restaurant (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

When he traveled through Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) Adam Richman stopped at the Frontier for the Bonanza Burger, the Frontier’s version of a green chile cheeseburger crafted from two quarter-pound patties, Cheddar cheese and bacon topped with New Mexico’s favorite fruit-vegetable–our beloved green chile. He called the Frontier “the go-to place for green chile smothered grub.” While the Bonanza Burger did not garner enough votes to make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, its nationwide exposure may put it over the top on the next trail.

In honor of Richman’s visit, the Frontier created the “Adam Bonanza” burger named for the affable Man Vs. Food Nation host. This burger behemoth is constructed from two quarter-pound grilled beef patties, double cheese, double green chile and double bacon. It’s one of my very favorite burgers (top five) in Albuquerque. Though Richman contended that the Bonanza burger “kicks and burns you with its chile,” the chile is rather mild though very flavorful with fine roasted qualities. Richman was spot-on when he said “it’s an excellent quality bacon cheeseburger, but the green chile takes it to a whole other level.” The beef is prepared at medium-well, but still manages to be juicy and delicious with a smoky grilled flavor that marries wonderfully with the bacon.

The Adam Bonanza (named for Man Vs. Food Nation host Adam Richman): double meat, double American cheese, double green chile, double bacon

As popular and famous as the Frontier has become among visitors to our fair state, no one has as high a regard for the Frontier as the generations of locals who have frequented it for four decades plus. Readers of Local IQ, Albuquerque’s Intelligent Alternative, have voted it the Duke City’s best for “late night eats,” “best cheap eats,” “best green chile” and “best breakfast burrito.”

On Chowhound.com one local even called the Frontier “the quintessential New Mexican” restaurant. It’s a sentiment echoed by callers during Ryan Scott’s pioneering and much-missed Break the Chain radio program. To detractors (and there aren’t as many of those as there are aficionados) that’s akin to saying Pace’s Picante sauce is New Mexico’s quintessential salsa. I’m of the mind that from an experiential perspective it is definitely the quintessential university area restaurant in the Duke City, but won’t go any further.

Labeling piquant goodness out of a cauldron onto a bounteous Frontier burrito

It’s not just Local IQ and Chowhound readers who esteem the Frontier’s breakfast burrito so highly. In its September, 2011 issue the Albuquerque The Magazine staff undertook the ambitious challenge of finding the very best breakfast burrito in the Duke City. The winner of the “Breakfast Burrito Brawl” turned out to be the Frontier Restaurant which on a typical Saturday or Sunday can serve as many as 800 of these tortilla-encased treasures.

It’s no mystery that another “local” held the Frontier in very high regard. In fact, legendary award-winning mystery author Tony Hillerman more than once made the restaurant a setting in his Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mystery novels. Hillerman also wrote unabashedly about his love for the Frontier in the November, 2005 edition of New Mexico Magazine.”

Enchiladas with the Frontier's chopped green chile and red chile

Enchiladas with the Frontier’s chopped green chile and red chile

Aside from the aforementioned carne adovada, huevos rancheros and now the Bonanza Burger, there are several entrees for which the Frontier is known, but the item most frequently mentioned as a favorite seems to be the fabled Frontier rolls. Served hot, buttery and gooey with a cinnamon sugar glaze, they pack a day’s worth of teeth-decaying, waist-expanding calories, the kind you enjoy consuming. They’re among the very best cinnamon rolls in the Land of Enchantment.

Pundits and first-timers also agree on the green chile stew–it’s easily among the most popular in town. Served from a steaming cauldron, it has a piquant bite locals appreciate. Alas, the green chile stew is served with paper thin tortillas prepared production line fashion before your eyes by a machine. Considering the quantities of tortillas served daily at The Frontier, it’s certainly more efficient than using the more tradition methods employed by New Mexican abuelitas for generations. No assembly line contraption, however, can match the aroma or taste of hand-formed tortillas off-the-comal.

Pancakes with syrup

Pancakes with syrup

If you order enchiladas or burritos, you’re asked if you’d like them with the green chile stew, but you can also have them with the restaurant’s chopped green chile or better yet, Christmas style. The Frontier’s version of “Christmas style” doesn’t necessarily mean a demarcation in which a clear boundary is established between the red and the green chile. As shown in the image above, you can’t tell where the red chile ends and the green chile stops. Trust me, that’s not a bad thing. The amalgam makes for an interesting flavor combination of medium piquancy.

The menu is segmented into breakfast, platters, hamburgers, sandwiches, New Mexican food and bulk items (like six-packs of the aforementioned Frontier rolls). There literally is something for everyone. The fresh squeezed orange juice is some of the best I’ve had anywhere–wholly unlike the doctored, pulpy and cloying stuff you buy in grocery stores. Orange after Florida sunshine nourished orange is squeezed into a refreshing juicy goodness. The Frontier’s hot chocolate simply makes you wish it was winter year round. Breakfast is served all day long–and a day’s worth of carbs and calories is what you might have if you order even a short stack of pancakes. These are thick, fluffy orbs made golden brown and just beckoning for butter and syrup.

A BLT on a tortilla

Whether or not the Frontier Restaurant is Albuquerque’s “quintessential New Mexican restaurant,” can certainly be debated. I would suggest doing so over an Adam Bonanza burger and a Frontier roll chased down by fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The Frontier Restaurant
2400 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 262-1848
LATEST VISIT: 23 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 17
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frontier Rolls, Green Chile Stew, Orange Juice, Hot Chocolate, Adam Bonanza

Frontier Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Owl Cafe & Bar – San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

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

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

owl05

The Owl Cafe and Bar

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

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

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

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

The green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico. Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right. Ironically, it’s not green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company. The reason given is that the Albuquerque Tortilla Company’s Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness. Somehow it makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hamburger steak dinner

The hamburger steak dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patty melt at the Owl Cafe

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

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

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

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

Owl Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cecilia’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cecilia's Cafe on 6th Street

Cecilia’s Cafe, a hidden downtown gem and one of New Mexico’s most famous and popular restaurants

Pasqual Baylon’s devotion to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist was so fervent that even when assigned kitchen duty, he remained so enraptured in adoration of the Eucharist that angels had to stir the pots to keep them from burning.  It’s deliciously ironic, therefore, that San Pasqual is the recognized patron saint of Mexican and New Mexican kitchens, a beloved saint whose smiling countenance graces many a kitchen, including the one in Cecilia’s Cafe, one of Albuquerque’s most authentic (and best) New Mexican restaurants.

On the day Cecilia opened her cafe back in 1999, she found a small retablo (a painting with a religious theme) of San Pasqual on her restaurant’s stoop.  To this day, no one knows who left that retablo which now hangs near the kitchen’s entrance.  If you’re inclined to believe in miracles…or at least in a favorable omen, San Pasqual was portend of greatness for this humble little restaurant.

Cecilia warms herself by the wood stove

The talented and terrific Cecilia Baca

When Cecilia says the secret ingredient in her cooking is love, she knows it comes from her heart, but she also doesn’t discount divine inspiration from her kitchen’s patron saint.  One meal at Cecilia’s Cafe and you’ll probably be disposed to believe her food is inspired.  If you’re a native New Mexican, you might even call it miraculous.  That’s because this is New Mexican food the way it’s been prepared by and for New Mexicans for generations.  It is unadulterated and in no way “anglicized” for touristy tastes.  This is the real thing!

Cecilia worked at several restaurants (including Little Anita’s, Garduno’s and Garcia’s) before embarking on her restaurant venture.  Because her goal is to deliver authenticity and consistency to her customers, she insists on preparing all the food herself (with Pasqual’s angels no doubt lending a hand).  The result is no less than some of the very best New Mexican food in the city–far better than the food at any of the restaurants in which she worked.

Cecilia's charming cafe

Cecilia’s comfortable restaurant

Cecilia was born and raised in Albuquerque’s North Valley and is a stickler for the details–the little things that make a difference between authenticity and a parody.  Preserving centuries old New Mexican culinary traditions is one of the reasons she opened her restaurant.  It’s also one of the reasons she insists her daughters Stephanie and Claudette work with her.  Cecilia wants to ensure they learn traditional New Mexican culinary techniques and is even teaching them how to prepare those dishes (such as meat empanadas) they might not like.  Her daughters have learned much more than cooking.  Their engaging and friendly personalities are obviously a reflection of the old-fashioned New Mexican manners they’ve learned from their mother.

Cecilia’s Cafe is the essence of an off-the-beaten path restaurant.  Situated in a hundred year old plus brick edifice a few blocks south of Central Avenue, it is both amazingly obscure and surprisingly well known.  Cecilia’s loyal clientele include white- and blue-collar workers who have frequented her cafe from the start. That clientele includes former ambassador to Spain Ed Romero, a New Mexico native.  Romero gave Cecilia the wood-burning stove that keeps her homey restaurant warm. Considering its relative anonymity until “discovered” in 2009, you might wonder if the faithful throngs wanted to keep this divine dining destination a well-kept secret.

Salsa and Chips Cecilia style

Salsa and chips at Cecilia’s Cafe

Much of Albuquerque didn’t learn about Cecilia’s until the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin rated it three and a half stars, a rating rarely accorded by the fire-eating Wisconsin native.   Though not a native, Andrea has come to realize that true greatness in chile is rare, even in New Mexico, so for her to use that adjective to describe Cecilia’s chile, it has to be something special.

Today, Cecilia’s is no longer a well-kept secret thanks to an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives which aired on February 16th, 2009.  Host Guy Fieri couldn’t get enough of Cecilia’s chicharrones (more on those later) and appreciated the multiple layers of flavor in Cecilia’s made from pods red chile.   He even took a stab at frying sopaipillas and watching tortillas on the griddle (under Cecilia’s watchful eye, of course).  Today, a monitor on a wall shows the “Triple D” episode perpetually.

Green chile Salsa and chips

In January, 2010, the Travel Channel traveled from coast to coast to uncover the 101 tastiest places to chow down–”joints serving some of the biggest and best dishes of deliciousness around.”  The only New Mexico restaurant to make the list–at  number 45 on the chow down countdown–was Cecilia’s Cafe, a downtown Duke City institution.  The program described Cecilia’s as “where they serve up New Mexican food so messy not even a stack of napkins won’t help.”  The description aptly described the Fireman’s Burrito, “a burrito bursting with so many mouthwatering and mind-blowing fillings, they serve it with a side of…apron.”  The Travel Channel gave it a “four-napkin” rating. 

This behemoth burrito was created by Cecilia at the behest of two local firemen Cecilia describes as “characters” who came into the restaurant famished and asked for something really big.  Cecilia put together sausage, bacon, eggs and hashed browns then loaded them into a homemade tortilla and piled on red chile, green chile, beans and carne adovada.  She topped the “gloriously messy mound of chow” with cheese and red and green chile.  Cecilia says it weighs between two and a half and three pounds, depending on who makes it.  When she makes it, it’s always three pounds.  This is the Fireman’s Burrito on the menu for just over a ten spot.  There’s also a competition-size burrito which goes for $42 (as of February, 2012), but it’s yours at no charge if you can finish it in an hour.  Because it’s roughly the size of a barge (seriously–it’s the length of a table and is more than three-inches high), only one gurgitator has managed to finish it and he did so in 36 minutes.  Nearly eighty others have tried and failed.

Blue corn enchiladas with red chile and a fried egg

Enchiladas with a fried egg on top

Call it sacrilege if you will, but I believe Cecilia’s red chile is in rarefied company along with Mary & Tito’s, The Shed, La Choza and Pete’s Cafe when it comes to capturing the essence of outstanding red chile.  Cecilia uses only Chimayo red chile and has it ground specially for her.  It’s a dark, rich and earthy chile that isn’t adulterated with flour or with cumin, that accursed spoiler of chile (Cecilia and I commiserated on the use of that vermin spice cumin, both aghast that any self-respecting New Mexican cook would use it on chile). 

As has become rather common in many New Mexican salsa and chips are no longer complementary but this is one salsa worth splurging (a pittance really) for.  This salsa’s piquancy will sneak up on you and before you know it the roof of your mouth and tongue will be tingling with the spicy vibrancy of a fresh and delicious salsa.  At many New Mexican restaurants salsa is often the most piquant menu item.  That’s not the case at Cecilia’s whose chile can be quite incendiary.  Another rare treat is that Cecilia sometimes offers a green chile-based salsa.

Carne adovada

Carne Adovada Breakfast with potatoes and beans at Cecilia’s

The menu includes many New  Mexican favorites, all prepared to order.  This isn’t fast food, or worse, frozen food thawed when ordered.  Cecilia frowns on institutionalized restaurants who don’t use the freshest ingredients possible. Though I normally order my New Mexican entrees “Christmas style” so as to sample both red and green chile, Cecilia’s red chile is so good that it might be a while before I find out what the green is like.  It’s that way at Mary & Tito’s, too.

That red chile shines on blue corn enchiladas engorged with shredded roast beef and topped with a fried egg.  If it’s possible for your taste buds to be happy, this entree will do it for you.  The roast beef, like all the meats Cecilia uses, comes from Nelson’s Market, a long-time Old Coors neighborhood institution and for my money, the very best meat market in the Duke City.  The shredded roast beef is tender and delicious.

Chicharones burrito

A humongous burrito at Cecilia’s

Having certified that Cecilia’s red chile is in exclusive company, we picked up Andrea’s gauntlet and ordered the carne adovada breakfast plate (hashed browns, two eggs any style, beans and carne adovada). The carne adovada is achingly tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious–shredded pork marinated in luscious red chile and slow-cooked to perfection.  As my friend Becky Mercuri might say, it’s so good I’d like to comb it through my hair.  Guy Fieri called it “pulled pork gone wild” after spilling the contents of a hand-held carne adovada burrito onto his beard.   Combing it through your hair or spilling it onto your beard might let it linger a bit longer, but in your mouth is where this carne adovada belongs.  This is carne adovada you will dream about.

Not surprisingly, Cecilia’s brings authenticity to a New Mexican specialty few restaurants seem to do well any more.  That would be chicharrones or pork cracklings (not pork rinds, but deep-fried cubes of pork with maybe a bit of pork fat thrown in for flavor).  A six- or eight-ounce portion at Cecilia’s is served with just off-the comal flour tortillas.  Fieri made the mistake of declaring that chicharrones are eaten like potato chips.  “That’s pork rinds, baby.” Cecilia corrected him.  She then showed him how they’re made–four hours of meticulous preparation time.  Another venue for chicharones is in Cecilia’s chicharones and bean burrito (pictured above).  Covered in cheese and smothered in heavenly red chile, it is among the very best burritos in the city.  Guy Fieri declared them “the size of a small football.”  Utterances of “wow” punctuated each bite he took of these delicious burritos.

Huevos Rancheros served Christmas style with Chicharones, Potatoes and Beans

Desserts rotate in and out at Cecilia’s whose prowess at baking is equal to its preparation of main entrees.  Alas, sometimes the entire baking bounty is gone by noon courtesy of savvy diners buying the sweet stuff in bulk.  This is definitely a case of their gain and your loss.  One of the specialties of the house are natillas, a rich Spanish custard that is equally wonderful whether served cold or warm.  Cecilia’s rendition is reputed to be fabulous, but if you don’t get it early, you might not get it at all.  You’ll also want a cup or three of the Red Rock Roasters coffee specially ground for Cecilia.  True to its name, this Albuquerque based coffee rocks!

Visit during the Lenten or Advent seasons and Cecilia might just be serving capirotada.  To call this dessert “bread pudding” is a vast understatement.  Made well, it is a terrific dessert.  Made authentically, it can be extraordinary.  Cecilia’s capirotada is extraordinary!  Like most capirotada, its component ingredients include toasted bread, lots of butter, cheese and raisins.  Cecilia also adds New Mexican roasted piñon which gives it a subtle hint of pine and for good measure, she might throw in cranberries to lend a tart taste.  She also uses piloncillo, a Mexican brown sugar.

Capirotada

Capirotada (New Mexican Bread Pudding)

Capirotada isn’t the only traditional Lenten dish Cecilia prepares.  During Lent, her menu might include quelites (wild spinach) and torta de huevo (a light egg-based dish served on Good Friday when Catholics abstain from eating meat).  Non-Lenten desserts include some of the best chocolate brownies I’ve ever had.  My friend Mike Muller said he’d dream about them after having lustily consumed the very last one left at Cecilia’s.  Being the good friend that he is, he shared it with me.  It’s so good, I might not have shared it.

The walls at Cecilia’s Cafe are adorned with several images of San Pasqual, as appropriate an inspiration as there could be for this wonderfully authentic New Mexican restaurant.  As you partake of Cecilia’s wonderful red chile, visualizing Pasqual’s angels helping out in the kitchen won’t be much of a stretch.  Get to know Cecilia and you’ll come to the realization that working miracles is a specialty for her. 

Cecilia’s Cafe
230 6th Street
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 243-7070

LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas with Shredded Roast Beef, Carne Adovada, Salsa and Chips, Capirotada, Chicharones and Bean Burrito, Chocolate Brownies

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