Santa Fe Bite – Santa Fe, New Mexico
“This burger is a wonder. It’s thick, it’s perfectly cooked, juicy and covered in cheese…
If eating a burger is a sin, this burger is like going to Vegas with a hooker who you kill,
stuff in your trunk, and push off into a canyon.”
—The Amateur Gourmet
Nay-sayers will tell you it shouldn’t have worked. Housed in a ramshackle building some might describe as being “in the middle of nowhere,” it defied the number one rule for restaurant success: location, location, location. It was Lilliputian in size, incapable of accommodating everyone clamoring to get in. Long waits were common with only a small porch and limited seating as a “waiting area.” Seating was in personal space proximity. in winter and rare rainy seasons, the dirt and gravel parking lot could become rather messy.
From a debits and credits perspective, these were the debits, the factors which worked against the Bobcat Bite ever becoming a success, much less a legendary dining destination. Fortunately the Bobcat Bite was frequented by diners with a glass is half full perspective, not by accountants and their ledgers. The Bobcat Bite was not beloved in spite of the aforementioned debits; it was beloved because of them. Well, those “debits” and the fact that it served the best burger in the known universe.
In a twist of cruel irony, the Travel Channel’s May 13th, 2013 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 knew and love it would be forever changed. An official statement, 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.” It was an announcement warranting flying the flag (or a chef’s apron) at half mast or upside down as a sign of distress.
The sizzle had barely cooled on the fifty-year-old cast iron grill on which so many wonderful burgers had been prepared before owners John and Bonnie Eckre announced they would be relocating their beloved restaurant near the Santa Fe Plaza, the heart of the city. While they could relocate their recipes and the personal homespun friendliness which made the Eckres as beloved as their burgers, legalities prevented them from taking the name “Bobcat Bite” with them.
In August, 2013, the newly christened Santa Fe Bite opened its doors in a space attached to Garrett’s Desert inn, a Route 66 motor court style motel within easy walking distance of the famous Plaza. The new digs are much more capacious than its predecessor with indoor seating for 80 guests and 36 more on a patio overlooking Old Santa Fe Trail. Cushioned booths against the west-facing windows and east wall flank the dining room where seating is more utilitarian than it is comfortable. Mirrors backdrop a bar where you can order not only milk shakes, but beer and wine. Walls are adorned with Route 66 style memorabilia.
Where the Bobcat Bite’s hours were abbreviated, the Santa Fe Bite is open every day but Monday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A significantly expanded lunch and dinner menu includes such additions as street tacos, green chile chicken enchiladas, chicken flautas and fish and chips (Fridays only) as well as steaks and chops. The breakfast menu features most New Mexican and American favorites while the Sunday brunch is the best of both breakfast and lunch, featuring such treats as cast-iron-fried buttermilk free range chicken, cornmeal pancakes, frittatas and so much more. Burgers are available at all hours, even for breakfast.
There are two things vastly more essential to the success of the Bite’s rebirth than an expanded menu and increased capacity. The first is the cast iron grill on which burgers were perfectly prepared for eighteen years at the old Bobcat Bite. John Eckre was able to bring one of those magnificently seasoned cast iron grills with him to the new location, ensuring continuity of the singularly delicious magic which earned him a reputation as Santa Fe’s premier burger meister. More than any burger chef I’ve ever seen, John has mastered the art and science of preparing burgers your way. No matter your desired degree of doneness–from medium rare to well done–your burger is prepared to your exacting specifications every single time.
The second is the genuine warmth and charm of Bonnie Eckre. Watching Bonnie work a room is a study in quiet graciousness and hospitality. Bonnie’s radiant smile is matched by her smiling eyes, the mirror to a beautiful soul who is absolutely beloved by her guests. Over the years she’s come to know many of the “regulars,” treating one and all as she would friends visiting her home. The wait staff is friendly and engaging. You’d expect no less at Bonnie’s home away from home.
When it comes to burgers, it’s all about the beef and that’s where The Santa Fe Bite has the edge over the competition. John Eckre still grinds 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. Each burger is a thick and juicy ten-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. That’s why true burger aficionados don’t whine about the green chile not being especially piquant. 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. The cast iron grill ensures consistent, even heat distribution. At medium, the thick patty has a perfectly pink center and is juicy to the tune of four to five napkins. The buns are made on the premises with a gluten-free option available. Burgers are accompanied by lightly salted and wonderfully crispy housemade potato chips. The Bite still doesn’t offer conventional French fries, but it does offer sweet potato fries and an addictive coleslaw.
One last word about those burgers–over the years I’ve heard time and again about some upstart burger that’s “as good” or “better than The Bite’s.” That The Bite is the rarefied standard against which all burgers in New Mexico are measured is fitting, but let’s get one thing straight: there is no better burger in the Land of Enchantment! My friend Sandy Driscoll visits Santa Fe once a year and always makes The Bite her last meal in the City Different. Though surrounded by some of the very best burger purveyors in America in her Los Angeles home, Sandy knows burgers and finds The Bite’s burgers unequaled.
If you’ve ever been curious what type of wine would go well with The Bite’s beauteous beef, you’re free to explore. Others who cherish the time-honored pairing of burgers and shakes will appreciate The Bite’s shakes. Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry are available and if the chocolate shake is any indication, you’re in for a real treat. The chocolate is an adult chocolate which means it’s not cloying. The shakes are served cold and thick in the style of all great shakes.
In the 2011 movie The Help, Minny Jackson, a downtrodden maid tending to the every need of racist high society in Mississippi sagely observed “Fried chicken just tend to make you feel better about life.” The Bite’s cast-iron fried buttermilk free range chicken will not only make you feel better about life, it’ll make you wish every day was Sunday. This chicken–three pieces of golden, juicy and tender bird with delightfully crisp skin– is available only for Sunday brunch. You’ll make quick work of this chicken, reducing it to bones in mere moments. The coleslaw has lip-pursing qualities and is tinged with pepper.
The Bite offers four desserts plus a daily special. Good fortune will shine upon you if the daily special is the apple pie a la mode. This is an apple pie the way apple pie should be made. That means plenty of sliced, sweet-tangy apples and a delicate, flaky crust not some pectin pretender. It’s served hot, plated right next to vanilla ice cream which renders the pie cool enough to eat. Few things in life go as well together as apple pie and ice cream.
With an expanded menu offering so many new and exciting options, you’d think this gastronome would be clamoring to try something new. Instead, I’m counting the hours until my next Santa Fe Bite green chile cheeseburger. It’s the very best in the universe and it may just be a while before anything else on the menu will entice me enough to forgo ordering one or three.
SANTA FE BITE
311 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 February 2014
1st VISIT: 29 November 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chocolate Shake, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Housemade Potato Chips, Sweet Potato Fries, Fried Chicken, Apple Pie A La Mode