In 1960, Albuquerque’s population reached 201,189, more than doubling the city’s tally from the 1950 census. The start of a new decade began an era of expansion, a construction boom in which the burgeoning city began experiencing unprecedented growth. A proliferation of shopping centers was built to serve new neighborhoods. Albuquerque was not yet overrun by horrendous, copycat chain restaurants; family owned and operated mom-and-pop dining establishments–like the K&I Diner–were (and still are) your best bet for a great meal.
1960 (March 2nd to be exact) was also the year in which Irene Warner opened Grandma’s K&I Diner (named for her daughter Kay Hess and herself) in the heart of Albuquerque’s industrial district in the far South Valley. She ran the eatery with her family for 39 years until her death at age 82 in 1999. The matronly Irene was a fixture at her restaurant, a kind and gentle woman who made everyone welcome at her restaurant home. With a pronounced Southern drawl, she and her family kept things lively, often addressing their faithful patrons by “honey” or “sugar.”
The restaurant has undergone several ownership changes since Grandma Warner passed away, but other than some polish and veneer, pretty much left everything the same. For that Albuquerque diners are grateful. The decor features antique brickerbrack donated by customers. Old stoves, a Pepsi dispenser (from back when a bottle of cold Pepsi cost ten cents), tube-operated radios and more eye-catching antiques will keep your interest while some placards may surprise you at how ribald humor was fifty or sixty years ago. One placard reads “big busted women float better.”
Ask anyone who’s been in Albuquerque for a few years and they can all recount their favorite memories of dining at the K&I. Most of them probably involve the “Travis,” a bean and seasoned beef burrito topped with cheese and chile then piled high with French fries. It’s an unlikely combination, but also a uniquely New Mexican one. The Travis is available in five sizes, the descriptions below of which are taken from the menu:
- Travis on A Silver Platter – You’d better bring lots of friends to attempt this. Of course, if you can eat it by yourself in an hour or less and we mean ALL of it, it’s free. It weighs over eight pounds and has been surmounted by only two people in the 40 years plus that it’s been available.
- Full Travis – Even the biggest of appetites would have a hard time finishing this one.
- Half Travis – It can be done, but you’d better be happy.
- Quarter Travis – This is the most popular size (pictured above), but some still need a to-go box.
- Wimp Travis – For those who just don’t feel up to the challenge.
The Travis on a Silver Platter is a full six pounds and the platter on which it is served is big enough for the Thanksgiving turkey. A Wimp Travis is big enough for most people, but most men will order at least a quarter Travis or they risk being drummed out of the XY chromosome club. As it approaches your table, your first inclination will be to wonder where the burrito is. The mountain of fries covers every other component on the dish. Like a treasure-hunter, you’ll have to get through several layers of fries before you get to the burrito. The fries are excellent.
When he traveled to Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) a stop at Grandma Warner’s K&I Diner was a must for host Adam Richman. No longer an active competitor in man’s quest to eat ridiculous amounts of food, Richman recruited three Albuquerque residents–all named Travis–to test their gurgitator’s mettle against the Travis on a Silver Platter: three flour tortillas, beef and beans, sausage-infused red chile and shredded Cheddar. Once folded over, the burrito is covered over with green chile, cheese and a lettuce-tomato garnish topped with a mountain of French fries. Richman called the challenge an “indomitable feat of manhood,” and “maybe the hardest challenge we’ve ever shown.”
Given an hour to consume the entire platter’s worth of food, the three Travises (a student at UNM, a meteorologist for a local television station and a professional bull rider) were unable to surmount the challenge despite the urging of the crowd (which included UNM cheerleaders and Lobo Louie) and Richman’s encouragement.
My own personal memories of the K&I Diner also involve the Travis. While stationed at Kirtland in the early 1980s, we used to take the dreaded Inspector General (IG) staff to the K&I and challenge them to finish a full Travis. Our hopes were that the IG staffers would get so full that drowsiness would set in after lunch and they wouldn’t be quite as nit-picky in their assessments. This usually worked with new staffers, but veteran IG members ultimately figured out our ploy. Still, they all enjoyed the K&I Diner as much as we did and made it a regular stop during their inspection tours of Kirtland.
Today, Air Force personnel (and no doubt, the infamous IG) still frequent the K&I Diner which despite four separate dining areas is usually packed for both breakfast and lunch. Newcomers with the gumption to try still think they have the mettle to consume an entire Travis, but invariably fail miserably (coincidentally miserable is the gastronomic state of anyone who succeeds).
Elise Hunnicutt, a Del Norte High graduate now residing in deepest, darkest Westchester, New York shares one of her favorite K&I and Travis memories from the winter of 1982. “The K&I was a favorite lunchtime stop for me when I worked for the Pepsi bottler in Albuquerque. I took two co-workers there one chilly day and instructed them on the fine points of ordering the Travis special. At the time, you didn’t use the word “Travis” when ordering, instead just proclaiming “Quarter” or “Half!” Your waitress would then call out the orders to the guys doing the cooking behind the counter. On this particular trip, I ordered my usual quarter. The first of my colleagues, obviously not embracing my guidance, slammed his fist on the table and demanded a Half. My other companion had no interest in the Travis and asked instead for a cheeseburger. Our waitress turned quickly toward the kitchen and said, “Quarter and a Half! And would someone please go down to Blake’s and get this idiot a cheeseburger?”
My friend Bill Resnik recalls the time he goaded a “Travis virgin” into ordering a full Travis. The behemoth platter arrived minutes later with a Dum Dum sucker on top. The acid tongue (but with a heart of gold) waitress presented it with “here you go, sucker!” Another time he asked the waitress how the meatloaf was that particular day. The waitress’s retort, “I wouldn’t have it if I were you. Grandma made it.” Grandma was notorious for putting any leftover she could find into the lasagna–including lime jello. After about three visits, the wait staff got to know you and treated you like a sibling.
The days of verbal jousting with the waitresses are long past and some of the restaurant’s personality left with Irene’s family and staff, but the K&I is and always will be, a memorable restaurant. Several local restaurants (Hurricane’s and Twisters come to mind) have attempted to duplicate the Travis and while some claim the pretenders are just as good, K&I veterans will vehemently defend the Travis as an incomparable original. In 1980, the Travis was trademarked, but that hasn’t stopped the pretenders.
According to local legend, the Travis was born when a frequent visitor (in true Western fashion, embellishments say it was a mysterious stranger) to the K&I asked for a burrito with everything on it but the kitchen sink. That’s what he got! The K&I Diner serves more than the Travis. Breakfast and lunch portions can best be described as “heaping” with daily specials available every day of the week. Over the years, the diner has added several other unique entrees in which piles of French fries are the topper, but none have approached the legendary status of the Travis.
2 March 2011: “Bert’s Mess” is a pile of hot, crisp French fries topped with chunks of ham, bacon and sausage (the triumvirate of porcine perfection) then smothered with red or green chile and topped with two eggs, any style. The chile, as chile is oft to do, varies in piquancy almost from day-to-day. There are days in which the chile has the bite of a bell pepper. Fortunately each table has several heat-generating condiments such as Cholula Hot Sauce and Tabasco Sauce. Even if you consider it sacrilege to desecrate New Mexico green or red chile by adulterating it with other hot sauces, both Cholula and Tabasco go very well with the fries. Forget the ketchup.
28 April 2007: The “Leo,” ostensibly named for another loyal customer is a plate piled high with French fries and topped with seasoned beef, cheese and your choice of red or green chile. About the only thing missing from these calorie overachiever’s dream is an angioplasty. It should come standard. The cheese is like a molten melted blanket which covers the entirety of the other ingredients with only a few fries rearing their delicious tops. French Canadians have their poutine; New Mexicans would rather have The Leo. Fries and cheese can’t be bested.
12 February 2016: Being a Catholic eating at K&I Diner on a Lenten Friday means having to abstain from partaking of meat. Few things in life are as torturous as watching your dining companion indulge on a Half Travis (which is replete with delicious seasoned beef) when you can’t have one. Sure the K&I Diner has plenty of entrees sans carne, but when you’ve got your heart set on a Travis, nothing else will do. Not even the K&I’s chile rellenos, two housemade chile rellenos smothered with your choice of red or green chile and served with beans and fries with a tortilla on the side. Admittedly, my longing for a Travis would have been minimized had the green chile been at least a little piquant, but it was so wimpy I had to add several shakes of Tabasco sauce to wake them up. Note to self: don’t visit the K&I during Lent.
2 March 2011: The K&I Diner’s chicken fried steak breakfast is one of the best of its kind found this side of Texas. The chicken fried steak is at least half an inch thick, not some thinly-pounded, boot leather-tough slab as you’re apt to find in other Albuquerque eateries. It’s covered in a peppered white gravy and is served with two eggs, a pile of hashed browns and sourdough bread toast on the side. It’s a prodigious breakfast not for the faint of heart. The chicken fried steak cuts easily, a very good sign and it’s not breaded so thickly that you have to send out a search party to find the actual beef. Best of all, it’s very good.
For more than 55 years, the K&I Diner’s formula of atmosphere, quick and friendly service and hearty portions has proven successful. It has stood the test of time and is an American classic in the finest sense.
2500 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
BEST BET: The Travis, The Leo, Bert’s Mess, Pancakes, Chicken Fried Steak, Chiles Rellenos