Route 66, America’s highway, meandered across 2,448 miles of the fruited plain, crossing three time zones and eight states, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Although Route 66 has all but disappeared, been renamed (as in Albuquerque’s Central Avenue) or left for nature to reclaim, the spirit of the roadside diner continues to thrive in neon spangled restaurants like the 66 Diner.
One of the best of Albuquerque’s nostalgia restaurants, this Historic Route 66 classic features a 50s theme replete with pony-tailed waitresses in blue skirts and bobby socks. The 50s music blaring from the jukebox (also played on Albuquerque’s Real Oldies station at 1600 on the AM dial) brings to mind American Graffiti, the 1973 coming of age movie which reintroduced America to the era.
That era is indeed celebrated in the authenticity of the 66 Diner’s 50s trappings, ranging from black and white tiled floors and fluorescent neon signage to the fluorescent turquoise and hot pink decor. My favorite period pieces include the hundreds of pez dispensers which line the ledges directly above the steely countertops in the front dining room. Indeed, the 66 Diner is committed to preserving the spirit of the roadside diner along the fabled route.
There is much to like about the 66 Diner even if Route 66 is solely something you’ve read about. You’ve got to admire the gumption of a restaurant willing to replace a recipe if a better one is brought in by a guest. That’s right! If you believe you have a tastier recipe for something, the 66 Diner will try it out and if they like it better, it will go on the menu. Not only that, they’ll treat you and three friends to dinner. Frankly, I have a feeling they haven’t had to comp many dinners.
That’s because the 66 Diner’s recipes are tried and tested over time. The diner originally launched in 1987 in a converted World War II era Phillips 66 gas station named Sam’s. It was an instant hit among locals and tourists alike. In May, 1995, the 66 Diner went up in flames, only a portion of the original structure remaining. Albuquerque was in mourning for nearly seven months as the diner was rebuilt. It relaunched in February, 1996 and like the Phoenix of legend, has arisen from the ashes to reclaim its previous glory.
Like many 1950s diners, the 66 Diner features a daily “blue plate special.” Ironically the term “blue plate special” originated not in the 1950s, but in the 1890s courtesy of the Fred Harvey restaurants along the railroad lines of the frontier west. I’ve written extensively in other reviews of Fred Harvey’s culinary contributions to the West. Like his other contributions, the genesis of the blue plate special is very interesting. Apparently Harvey bought cheap, disposable plates colored blue similar to Wedgwood dishes and used them to serve inexpensive meals, hence the term.
At the 66 Diner, the blue plate specials range from spaghetti and meatballs on Monday to chicken pot pie on Tuesday, chicken and dumplings on Wednesday, a taco platter on Thursday, fried catfish on Friday, a hot turkey sandwich on Saturday and “mom’s choice” (whatever mom comes up with) on Sunday. For the most part, the blue plate specials are comfort food favorites prepared very well and served in generous portions.
No 50s era diner would be complete without thick, rich milk shakes, floats and malts (egg creams are available, too). No one in Albuquerque does it any better. That’s the consensus of respondents to various annual polls of city diners who have voted the 66 Diner’s shakes “best in the city” consistently year after year.
Many people eschew the old stand-bys–chocolate, vanilla and strawberry–in favor of flavors that weren’t available in the 1950s. In fact, some of those revolutionary flavors might have been considered heretical in the more conservative era of the 50s. Those flavors include the Elvis Presley (banana and peanut butter), the Pink Cadillac (strawberry ice cream and crushed Oreos), Oreo, Dreamsicle, Mocha, Coffee and several others. Pumpkin pie and Egg Nog shakes are featured as “shakes of the month.” Despite all the inventiveness, the most popular shake remains chocolate.
Unique flavors not withstanding, the 66 Diner’s milkshakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin on a Hamilton Beach blender, 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. The 66 Diner is also one of the few places in town to offer red cream soda, my favorite before I gave up sodas altogether.
Nothing goes better with a shake, float or malt than a burger. In New Mexico, naturally this means a green chile cheeseburger. The 66 Diner makes one of the very best (top ten) green chile cheeseburgers in town–even though it didn’t made the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in either 2009 or 2011. When you request a burger a certain way, it’s delivered to your exacting specifications. Moreover you get a two-fisted burger in which the beef, the ingredients are unfailingly fresh and the chile (spelled correctly on the menu) actually bites back. It’s a very good chopped green chile with piquancy and flavor. Burgers are accompanied by your choice of sides–French fries, potato chips, coleslaw or potato salad.
The 66 Diner isn’t as well known for breakfast as perhaps it should be. Its limited breakfast menu might be the reason. Frankly, many New Mexicans are of the opinion that if you have breakfast burritos on the menu, you don’t need much else. The diner’s breakfast burrito is one of the biggest in the city, a large tortilla engorged with home fries, scrambled eggs and chopped green chile topped with melted Cheddar cheese and your choice of red and (or) green chile.
Make yours “Christmas style,” a burrito covered with both red and green chile. Both are surprisingly good and more piquant than at many New Mexican food restaurants. In fact, the green chile is downright special, a fruity sweet and gunpowder incendiary chile that elicits the type of endorphine rush which makes people fall in love with chile in the first place. The burrito is served with pinto beans.
On our way to the 66 Diner for breakfast one Sunday, we passed a restaurant on Central Avenue offering “all you can eat pancakes for seven dollars.” A better bet would be ordering a “short stack” at the 66 Diner. Short obviously isn’t synonymous with small as we found out when our waitress delivered two pancakes which covered all but a tiny bit of the plate. These enormous pancakes would fill a small, developing nation (or as Jay Leno might quip, one fat American). We barely put a dent on them and even contemplated the notion of left-over pancakes, but perhaps only if you’re stoned would pancake left-overs be palatable…and they might cure the munchies. Otherwise, they’re almost inedible.
Friendly, attentive service is also a constant. There are many who say nothing could be finer than a meal at the 66 Diner.
1405 Central, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 25 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 14
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Breakfast Burrito, Pancakes, Red Cream Soda, Shakes, Malts, the “Dagwood”