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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

  • Warren Marts says:

    I ate lunch there on Thursday Jan. 7 so they’re still cooking. I’m a Socorro resident and I haven’t heard anything about them closing.

    I will say, though, I think the burgers and fries are better across the street at the Buckhorn. I tried one of each that day as a scientific measure, as it’d been quite a while since I ate at the Owl.

    One of the best things on the menu at the Owl is a bowl of beans and chile. Not for those unused to rather hot food, but darn tasty and actually not something you’ll see on the menu many places.

    January 10, 2009 at 6:00 PM
  • Dave Daniels says:

    I was over in the USA from England several years ago and having left,Lordsburg in Arizona was travelling up the road from El Paso to Albuqerque.Saw a sign for The Owl Bar & Cafe advertizing the ‘best burgers’ in America.We stopped in and ate,they were right not only the best burgers in America but the best burgers I had tasted anywhere!While at the Owl Bar I bought a limited edition belt buckle,that I still have.It was celebrating their 45th year anniversary.I cant remember what year it was, anyone know which year that would be?
    regards
    Dave Daniels
    England

    February 19, 2009 at 6:11 PM
  • Weirdsmobile says:

    My wife and I just got back from our first visit to the Owl Bar. As a major hamburger aficionado, I’d say that their GCCB is one of the better burgers I’ve had, although I have to admit I was expecting much more considering the hype. I suspect the place has been coasting on its reputation for many years. Still, a very good burger, with great beef — very juicy and beefy. Would I drive down there again for it? No, but I’ll definitely be stopping in the next time I’m sightseeing in the area.

    One small gripe: under no circumstances order the onion rings. For just under $4.00 you get a tiny bowl of what are either generic frozen onion rings, or an amazing reproduction. I think I had about five small, bland-tasting rings. My wife had the cheese fries — again, about $4 for a small dish of limp fries slathered in convenience store grade nacho cheese. Although the cheeseburger itself is (just barely) worth the $5-6, they should be ashamed for serving these mediocre side items, and charging as much as they do for them.

    March 21, 2009 at 6:09 PM
  • Jenn R says:

    Stopped in for burger after finding that Buckhorn was closed for a couple of hours. Have had Owl burgers before both at the San Antonio establishment and the ones in Albuquerque. The San Antonio one is definitely better than getting one in Albuquerque. I find the prices pretty reasonable and did not have the same experience with the fries. In comparison we found the fries wonderful. My son voted them above any he has had. He loved the homemade taste and texture. These were definitely fresh cut fries. I disagree that it is the best GCCB around (my vote goes to Bobcat) but would definitely say it is one of the best. The service was also spot on the day we went, had our burgers within 10 minutes and never waited for service. I think this is one of the issues I have heard from people who have been to Buckhorn, service is slow and almost rude at times. I have yet to find out if Buckhorn is better.

    August 7, 2009 at 6:06 PM
  • Sarah J says:

    I’ve never understood why people think these burgers are good. Cool atmosphere, but taste? Non-existent. The second most over-rated burger in NM. The first most over-rated is at the Buckhorn across the street.

    December 9, 2009 at 6:04 PM
  • Kathy Folsom says:

    Hello, We’re traveling through your town from Texas next week, and would LOVE to try your chili burgers. What are your hours, and will you be open over the holidays? Thank you.

    Maria

    December 25, 2009 at 6:02 PM
  • Cheryl Alters Jamison says:

    Happy New Year, Gil! Have you or any of your faithful readers heard anything about the Owl in San Antonio closing? When queried about this, I thought the owners were probably taking some time off for the holiday. However, the long-time phone number seems to be disconnected. Hmmmmmm.

    December 31, 2009 at 6:32 PM
    • Betty Clark says:

      Betty Clark Midland Tx. 11/2/2012
      The owl Bar is open Enjoy!

      November 3, 2012 at 6:47 PM
  • Kayla Frazer says:

    Dear weirds mobile and sarah! ummmm u both obviously have no idea what good service and good food is….owl bar and buckhorn are both very nice very reasonbly price and very much better than what u could probably make.
    I thank owl bar and buckhorn for their great service and great food :) ignore the ignorant idiots who know nothing of real food!

    May 25, 2010 at 5:54 PM
  • Jeanne Reagan says:

    Traveling back from Bowling Green Kentucky with a brand new C-6 Grand Sport convertible, found myself stranded in Santa Rosa in a Snowstorm. Headed south on 57, turned right knowing that Springerville,AZ was somewhere to the west, and stumbled on the Owl.

    Sat at the bar, and enhaled a green chili cheeseburger with french fries. Wow! This was really the best hamburger ever. My mouth burned, and it felt good. I am only sad that it is so far away. You can be sure that I will take this route again… and for certain stop at the Owl.

    By the way, I did check out the store next door and found the fudge to be terrific. Everyone was so nice and friendly. Thank you all.

    May 25, 2010 at 5:57 PM
  • Zelda Z. says:

    Our meal did not live up to its hype. It was really a great disappointment. Service was fine but the burgers were dry and flavorless.

    July 17, 2010 at 5:51 PM
  • Charlotte Glover says:

    Thanks, Gil for a trip down memory lane. My grandparents drove from Albq an average of once a week to eat at the Owl and go to the Bosque until well into their 70’s. I accompanied them on many trips over two decades and have no problem remembering that savory meat, hearty french fries or dripping cheese and chile. Grandma always got her chile on the side and I loved to dip my fries in it. My grandparents have since passed away but I like to think a little part of them lives on in the Owl. I appreciate your respect and admiration for this one of a kind place. By the way, I live thousands of miles from New Mexico now and your blog makes me CRAZY to come home and eat. Well done week after week!

    May 20, 2012 at 1:54 PM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      Hi Charlotte

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so happy my blog can help keep a piece of New Mexico in your heart. My friend Lynn Starner writes another blog you might enjoy. She, too, is an expatriate, currently living away from New Mexico but using her writing talents to share the Land of Enchantment with others. You can visit her blog at http://www.newmexicoenchantment.com/.

      Gil

      May 20, 2012 at 5:45 PM
  • Zuzu says:

    Wow, I have eaten there many times, but I didn’t even know they had a menu, much less a patty melt on it. My husband and I were just talking about patty melts today, so next time, I will definitely try this one. On another note, dear Gil, if you have any reason to return to Santa Fe, would you give the Ranch House a try and let us know what you think? I’m not shilling for them or anything, I just think it is good, but I grew up in NM and am no barbecue afficianado. I would like to know what you think.

    May 20, 2012 at 5:47 PM
  • Ella Day says:

    My husband Doyle Day was employed at the Bosque Del Apache . We lived there for 9years and visiting the Owl Bar was a real treat to us and our 3children. We always went there on election evening. It was a family oriented bar even in the 60’s. I just looked at the web site and the picture of the hamburger made my mouth water. I live in Oregon now and we do not get green chili up here and we really miss it. I remember Rowena and everyone who worked there many happy memories of those days.

    July 15, 2012 at 8:29 AM
  • gina says:

    i WAS a.regular At the Owl bar but recently stopted going because ONE of the waitress’s there was really always.rude her Customer service sucked they really needa get New.ones.there sorry.but u guys lost My service i will never go back there

    July 17, 2012 at 10:09 PM
  • Eduardo says:

    Perhaps if you are a local and a friend of the rude owner, this place is for you. If you’re anyone else, skip it. I drove down from Albuquerque last weekend, the intention being to eat at the place across the street, which actually has delicious burgers. But the Buckhorn was closed, so we decided to settle for the Owl. I had heard that the Owl has quick service and that the burgers are decent. Eating here was the biggest mistake of the weekend.

    We walked in to a filthy restaurant/bar and sat ourselves at a booth. The unfriendly, scowling owner came to our table as we were still sitting down and rudely wiped the table — obviously, we were in her way — and I guess she figured that my lap would look better with some shredded lettuce and French fries on it. After a few humorless remarks to us, she stomped back to her perch at the register.

    Trying to put the encounter behind us, we waited about five minutes for a waitress. She took our order and decided it would be best if we waited 15 minutes for our drinks, which sat on a counter while she socialized in another area of the restaurant.

    Shortly after we got our drinks, a very large and surly waiter (or maybe a bus boy?) silently placed our baskets of fries in front of us, staring creepily at the wall next to us, and then quickly walked away. The fries were undercooked and lukewarm. We finally got our burgers, which each came with about seven or eight flecks of mild and freezer-burned green chile. The buns were soggy and the meat was absolutely tasteless.

    The waitress came back once more, as we were about a quarter of the way through our burgers, to drop off our check. How this place ended up in any sort of travel book is beyond me. The food is on par with the worst fast-food chains in the area. And, as we wrote on a napkin in lieu of a tip: “If customers = inconvenience, then you = fail.” This place fails. I will never go back.

    December 27, 2012 at 5:58 PM
  • South Melbourne Restaurant says:

    Nice post! I feel all dishes are amazing and they look very tasty. Of all the servings, I liked the hamburgers and beans platter the most. I wouldn’t mind going at The Owl for the reasonably priced meals.

    November 24, 2014 at 1:17 AM

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