On a journey by train to San Francisco, New Mexico’s legendary award-winning author Tony Hillerman shared an observation car with businessmen from the East. As the multi-hued Zuni Buttes, majestic Mount Taylor, breathtaking mesas and skies resplendent with monsoon thunderclouds passed in review, his heart was lifted and his worries dissipated. He then overheard one of the Easterners remark to the other, “My God, why would anybody live out here?” Hillerman’s immediate (though unspoken) thought was, “My God, why wouldn’t everyone want to live out here?”
As Hillerman’s experience clearly illustrates, one person’s “middle of nowhere” is another person’s idyllic paradise. Similarly, what some consider “nothing to do here” is the pace of life others spend their life pursuing. It’s a dichotomy of lifestyles not delineated by age or wealth, but by attitude and maturity. In my twenties, my perspective of Hillsboro, New Mexico would have been similar to that of the Easterners. Twenty-some years later, I echo Hillerman’s sentiment.
Approximately half an hour southwest of Truth or Consequences, Hillsboro is nestled along the meandering Percha Creek in the foothills of the storied Black Mountains once frequented by Geronimo and his Apache warrior band. Founded in April, 1877 when two prospectors discovered gold on the east side of the Mimbres Mountains, Hillsboro’s population peaked at about 1,200 residents with area mines producing about $6 million in gold and silver. As the town’s riches dwindled, ranching and later apple orchards, became important industries.
Buoyed by the prospect of instant riches or at least a gold nugget they can brag about, hobbyist prospectors young and old still dip their pans in creek beds. Those smart enough to stay quickly recognize the true treasure lies not in minerals, but in neighbors where the term means more than proximity, in enchanting vistas and in the tranquility of silence broken by the coo of a morning dove or the song of a cicada. Today, Hillsboro is home to several restaurants, gift shops and galleries, a museum, a garage and grocery, a bed and breakfast, a saloon, a library, a post office and a bank.
One of those aforementioned restaurants is the Hillsboro General Store, which opened in 1879 and has operated continuously since that date, originally as a mercantile. The building, which is on both the National and New Mexico Registers of Historic Landmark Sites, also served as a post office, stage stop, bank, telephone exchange and for nearly seventy years, as a drug store. Though today calling itself a “general store,” it has gained a reputation for excellent New Mexican and American food as well as homemade pastries.
Holding true to its 19th-century roots, the General Store is festooned with historical artifacts, reminders of its storied past. Proprietor Doreen Lewis greets one and all, neighbors by name. Neighbors and friends–maybe even Doreen’s 91-year-old mother–stop by to treat themselves to one of the best home-cooked meals in Sierra County and its famous bumbleberry pie.
The two-page menu is hardly a compendium of dishes, but it does offer a nice selection of burgers, sandwiches and New Mexican food as good as you’ll find anywhere in the county. You’ll also find both hand-blended milk shakes and malts made with real ice cream and served bone-chilling cold. Both are served on a shake glass along with the tin in which the shakes and malts are blended. It’s much like getting a shake or malt and a half. On a hot summer day, there’s nothing quite as good.
Of course nothing goes as well with shakes or malts as burgers and fries. The French fries don’t come from a bag, but are hand-cut Russets fried to a golden hue and salted lightly. These are fries so good you won’t need ketchup. There are several burgers on the menu, but in my ongoing quest for new “talent” for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, it was the Super Deluxe Burger which most beckoned. This burger behemoth is constructed from a five-ounce, hand-formed beef patty topped with bacon, green chile and cheese on a toasted sesame seed bun with white onions, pickles and tomatoes on the side. The chile is somewhat on the mild side, but it has a nicely seasoned flavor. The beef patty is moist and delicious, obviously not subjected to the torturous spatula press.
Another intriguing item showcasing the restaurant’s beef is the Caliente Melt. Despite the name, it’s not a piquant version of a patty melt. In fact, it’s rather similar to the aforementioned green chile cheeseburger. The main differences are that the Melt is served with a six-ounce beef patty instead of five-ounces, it’s made with Pepper Jack cheese and is normally made with jalapeños though you can opt for green chile instead. It also includes strips of bacon and is served with chips. It’s an excellent burger-melt, thanks especially to the terrific beef, a real difference-maker.
As good as the burgers and New Mexican food, it just might be the pastries–particularly the unique “bumbleberry pie” that make the General Store a dining destination not to be missed. The bumbleberry pie might be more appropriately called the “everything but the kitchen sink” pie because it contains whatever fruits are seasonal and fresh at the time, meaning it may taste just a bit different at different times of the year. It’s more tart than it is sweet and made with a light, flaky crust you could eat on its own and enjoy. Served a la mode with vanilla ice cream, it’s a blue-ribbon award-winning caliber pie.
The El Paso Times described Hillsboro as a “picturesque postcard of small-town America,” an apt description for one of New Mexico’s hidden gems. The town and its eponymous General Store provide a glimpse of a bygone era, perhaps a better time and place. Why everyone wouldn’t want to live in a village like Hillsboro is beyond me.
Hillsboro General Store
100 Main Street
Hillsboro, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 June 2012
1st VISIT: 18 April 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Super Deluxe Burger, Caliente Melt, Enchiladas, Bumbleberry Pie a la mode, Chocolate Shake, French Fries