Blake’s Lotaburger is a New Mexico only institution founded in 1952 by long-time proprietor Blake Chanslor who owned it for half a century before selling it in 2003. While the marquee may still carry Blake’s name, the 76 store franchise with a presence in most of New Mexico’s larger cities and towns (23 in all) is now owned by Brian Rule, an Albuquerque resident. On April 10, 2009, Chanslor passed away, having left a legacy based not only on having founded a New Mexico institution, but for his philanthropic endeavors.
Thankfully, Lotaburger has, for the most part, retained the high quality that has allowed it to thrive despite the onslaught from deep-pocketed, worldwide corporate megaliths. At least that’s the case for many of the state’s Lotaburger restaurants. As is often the case with multi-store chain restaurants, not all links in the chain are equally strong. All too frequently, we have visited Lotaburger restaurants throughout the state in which service is spotty and the burgers don’t quite meet the high preparation standards for which Lotaburger has been known.
Though I have not tried all of New Mexico’s LotaBurger restaurants, those I frequent most often (one in Rio Rancho and one in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque) exemplify the high standards that make Lotaburger a state institution. The wonderfully performing Lotaburger restaurants form the basis for the positive things written on this review, but I’ll also explain my rancor for lesser performing franchises.
The restaurant’s motto, “If you are what you eat, you are awesome” may describe in part why New Mexicans are fiercely loyal to Lotaburger. It’s a restaurant we proudly call our own; you can’t find them even in bordering states (pity them). LotaBurger was grandfathered into the inaugural New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2009, an indication of just how beloved this institution is throughout the Land of Enchantment. In 2011 the affection New Mexicans have for Lotaburger was not assumed with voters being asked to select their favorites for the second New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. The leading vote-getter from among more than 100 nominees was Lotaburger. No other restaurant was close.
In a 2006 edition of National Geographic’s Passport to the Best: The 10 Best of Everything book, Lotaburger was acclaimed as the “Best Green Chile Cheeseburger in the World“. You won’t find many locals who’ll dispute that it’s definitely one of the very best. On the Alibi’s 2003, 2004 and 2005 Readers Choice restaurant polls, Duke City residents proclaimed loudly that Lotaburger serves the very best hamburger in town. While generations of New Mexicans have grown up appreciating Lotaburger, this local gem is also appreciated by many (though certainly not all) newcomers, some who have been known to become devoted loyalists after only one visit.
In 2010, Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant and hilarious author of Ask a Mexican, a widely syndicated newspaper column published mostly in weekly alternative papers, asked the question “Forget Five Guys Burgers: Why Can’t We Get a Blake’s Lotaburger.” It was his response to the influx of Five Guys Burgers in Southern California. Arellano reasoned, “If we’re going to have a regional burger chain invade our county and go up against our In-n-Out’s and TK’s, why couldn’t it have been Blake’s Lotaburger, the country’s most-ardent proponent of what’s perhaps burgerdom’s greatest manifestation: the green chile hamburger?”
In recent years, Lotaburger has modernized many of its buildings, all of which are built by the company’s construction division. One constant has been the presence on the marquee of a jolly-faced ringmaster attired in top hat and red striped coat and bow tie. It’s a familiar site to all New Mexicans. With the exception of buns and drinks, everything that goes to a Lotaburger Stand comes from or through the company’s main commissary, just off Candelaria in Albuquerque. That might account for the unfailingly fresh ingredients that make it onto a Lotaburger.
One concession Lotaburger has made over the years is adding drive-up service. While this may be a wonderful convenience, trying to devour a Lotaburger while you drive can be a messy proposition because each burger (prepared to order) can be crammed with lettuce, tomato, green chile (optional), onions and mustard. If you’ve got the time, it’s still best to eat in and observe the cooks in action, listen to the sizzle of the grill and especially imbibe of the aroma of your burger being prepared to order. That grill is so well seasoned that my buddy Bill Resnik has thought seriously about taking a weekend job at Lotaburger just to figure out how Lotaburger seasons its grill so perfectly.
The green chile cheeseburger is Lotaburger’s signature menu item–though there is no such burger listed on the menu–and one of the things we missed most about the Land of Enchantment all the years we were away. Delicious angus beef orbs are ameliorated by toasted buns and unfailingly fresh ingredients. The green chile has never been piquant, but it is unfailingly fresh and delicious. There are only two burgers on the menu, the “Lotaburger” and the “Itsaburger,” the latter being the smaller of the two. Both are constructed with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mustard. You can also ask for mayonnaise, cheese, bacon and any burger can be made with double meat for a pittance. If you like grilled onions on your burger, Lotaburger will accommodate you here, too. Then, of course, there’s the green chile.
In 2010, Lotaburger started promoting its “hotter” chile. On the premises posters depict the top-hat wearing character on the Blake’s marquee holding what is apparently a flaming burger, the implication being that the chile is almost too hot to handle. Alas, even a double portion of the green chile failed to give me the endorphin rush addicts like me crave. Though not quite as mild as the garnish some restaurants pass off as green chile, most New Mexicans will find it a bit tepid. Interestingly the restaurant manager told me several complaints were received about the chile’s piquancy.
A Lotaburger is wholly unlike any of the ubiquitous institutionalized fast-food burgers on every street USA. You’ll never find a Lotaburger sitting under a heating lamp for ten minutes before your order. In fact, the beef doesn’t hit the grill until you place your order–and the grill is cleaned after each burger is done, one of the reasons the restaurant earns recognition for its cleanliness. It’s taste, however, that makes Lotaburger aficionados crave these incomparable burgers. If freshness has a flavor, it might taste like a Lotaburger just off the grill. The coalescence of fresh ingredients with perfectly seasoned beef sandwiched by lightly toasted buns is positively addictive.
Lotaburger also serves some of the best French fries in town, offering both the standard thin cut tuber and a seasoned variety with a double-fried texture and taste. A popular way to enjoy these fries is with shredded cheese and red chile (pictured below). The red chile is replete with ground beef and is almost brownish in color, but it has more piquancy than the green chile used on the burgers.
If you want piquant, a good option is Lotaburger’s rendition of the Frito pie, listed as “chili pie” on the menu. A messy mix of beans, chili, onions, cheese and Fritos, these tasty gems are, like everything else on the menu, made to order. Chili fries are another option. The fries are lightly coated with various spices and are stiff on the exterior and soft on the inside. The chili is made with hamburger and has a nice pleasant heat to it. Though it’s spelled and made with hamburger the Texas way, the chili is all New Mexico with no cumin.
To this point, I’ve praised LotaBurger ad-infinitum, so why the reason for my relatively low rating. It’s forgivable that the green chile lacks in the piquant bite many New Mexicans crave, but it’s sacrilege for some of the restaurant’s chefs to absolutely mash the beef to the grill with the spatula. My skin crawls at seeing the meat mashing cooks take away whatever moistness any slab of beef may have with their spatula pressing. So there–discard the spatulas; they don’t accelerate the preparation process by that much.
Several years ago, Lotaburger began serving breakfast burritos at select locations. The burritos are more like burrotes; they’re enormous and require two hands to hold. Offered with Hatch grown green and red chile, most of them come standard with hashed browns, scrambled eggs and your choice of other ingredients such as beans, sausage and bacon. As much as I revere Lotaburger’s green chile on its famous burgers, there just isn’t enough of New Mexico’s favorite condiment on the burritos for my liking. Ditto for the red chile.
The parsimony with which the chile is applied and its lack of piquancy was certainly no deterrent to the staff of Albuquerque the Magazine who, in the September, 2011 undertook the ambitious challenge of naming Albuquerque’s very best breakfast burrito. Lotaburger’s breakfast burrito was the second rated from among dozens of choices evaluated. It’s the most popular breakfast item proffered at the restaurant.
Better than the breakfast burritos is a simple breakfast sandwich in which fluffy eggs, cheese, bacon and green chile are sandwiched in between two slices of toasted bread. It’s a morning picker-upper that tastes great. Breakfast is served only until 11AM which may be a shame because a burrito for lunch might be another draw.
Lotaburger’s barbecue sandwiches are abounding in beef and dressed with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The hot dogs are another burger alternative and are as good as some hotdog themed restaurants in town.
The chocolate and strawberry shakes are cloying and both have the “artificial flavoring” taste. Better, but still pinging-off-the-walls sweet is the cherry Coke (which Blake’s served well before it was a commercial product).
6210 Fourth Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 29 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 25
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Chili Pie, Breakfast Sandwich, Barbecue Beef Sandwich