1922 was a year of firsts for Albuquerque and New Mexico. At 15,462 citizens, Albuquerque’s population constituted for the first time ever, more than half the population of Bernalillo county. The state’s first skyscraper, the nine-story First National Bank (now a high-end condominium project in Albuquerque’s Central Avenue called The Banque Lofts) was built. Taking to the air waves for the very first time was New Mexico’s very first radio station, KOB which then broadcast at 833.3 on the AM dial. Dr. William Lovelace co-founded the Lovelace Clinic, based on the Mayo clinic’s physician group practice model. Albuquerque then was a mecca for people suffering from respiratory diseases and allergies seeking relief in the city’s warm, dry climate.
1922 also saw the launch of the Red Ball Cafe in the historic Barelas neighborhood. It was primarily a neighborhood cafe back then, but four years later in 1926 the original Route 66 passed by its windows, increasing the number of guests crossing its doors. The original Route 66 essentially followed El Camino Real, the original “Royal Road” between Mexico and New Mexico, traversing south from Santa Fe through Albuquerque and the Barelas Neighborhood to Isleta Boulevard then onto Los Lunas where the legendary Mother Road took a westerly turn.
In 1929, King Features Syndicate introduced a comic strip called Popeye, the Sailor Man with a cast of endearing characters which included J. Wellington Wimpy, a hamburger-loving mooch who would “gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” (there’s got to be an analogy for the government there somewhere). Capitalizing on the fame and notoriety of the pusillanimous burger beggar, the Red Ball Cafe began serving “Wimpy Burgers” for five cents in the 1930s. It became one of the cafe’s trademarks, a “slider”-sized burger which included a secret red chile sauce (green chile cheeseburgers had surprisingly not yet been invented).
In 1937, Route 66 was rerouted and no longer traversed through the Barelas neighborhood. It forebode a period of decline not only for the Red Ball Cafe, but for the Barelas neighborhood. After World War II, there was a steep drop-off of business at the nearby railyards. Further decline transpired in the 1950s when odoriferous emanations from an area sewage treatment plant drove people away. Then in the 1960s, shopping mall developments proved too formidable competition for long-established mom and pop businesses, the economic heart of the community.
Before long, the federal government was calling Barelas a “pocket of poverty” and what was once a thriving neighborhood languished. The Red Ball Cafe finally shuttered its doors in 1979, becoming a draw for crime and vagrants. During the decade of the 70s, Barelas was all but forgotten–perhaps a blessing in disguise because that allowed the preservation of historic buildings for which the community is best known today. Local, state and federal grants and tax breaks were offered to local risk-taking entrepreneurs willing to join in neighborhood rehabilitative efforts.
One of those entrepreneurs was Barelas born Jim Chavez who resurrected the Red Ball Cafe, opening its doors in March, 1998, nearly twenty years after its closure. A builder by trade, Chavez modernized the facility by adding such touches as air conditioning, but maintained many of the restaurant’s original touches. J. Wellington Wimpy features prominently on interior and exterior walls and signage while Popeye comic strips share space under plexiglass table tops with photographs and notes from glitterati and politicians. If you enter through the restaurant’s north-facing door, one of the first things you’ll espy is a dedication to the memory of the restaurant’s former owners and employees. It’s a nice, familial touch. A painting of the Santuario de Chimayo in autumn also festoons the foyer. Long-time Duke City residents will appreciate a promotional poster for a musical event at the long defunct Civic Auditorium and old-timers will certainly enjoy seeing a painted red ball depicting 1942 prices such as the five cent Wimpy burger.
The Wimpy Burger is no longer just five cents, but it’s still a bargain. It’s also a tad bigger than the White Castle sliders to which it’s often compared. In fact, if memory serves me, it’s about the size of a McDonald’s burger which hasn’t crossed my lips since the 70s. The Wimpy Burger is still made with red chile though you can request other condiments such as lettuce, tomatoes and even cheese. It’s a snack sized burger and it might take five or six of them to make a meal, but they’re quite good.
In 2009, Albuquerque The Magazine went in search of the best burger in Albuquerque. Pairing staffers to sample burgers at forty different burger purveyors, their systematic testing methodology involved ordering two burgers at each restaurant: the specialty of the house and a basic cheese burger prepared at medium. The entire staff then got together and ate at the five restaurants garnering the highest ratings. With more than two-hundred burgers consumed, the fifth-place honoree as the Duke City’s best burger was the Red Ball Cafe’s eponymous Red Ball Burger.
The Red Ball Cafe offers a complimentary bowl of salsa and chips to all guests. The salsa is perhaps the most piquant item on the menu. Despite being somewhat on the thin side, it’s a very good salsa with notes of freshness and a balance of flavors between tomatoes and jalapeños. The chips are freshly made and are thick and low in salt. They’re formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa though the salsa’s thinness makes large scoops a challenge.
As we tend to do during our inaugural visit to a New Mexican restaurant, we asked whether or not cumin is used in the preparation of the restaurant’s chile. Our waitress’s derogatory comments about the malodorous qualities of cumin gave us hope that the menu would be authentically New Mexican. It is! The carne adovada showcases that authenticity best. Though bathed in red chile, the tender tendrils of pork marinaded in rich, red chile are as moist and delicious as possible. As with most carne adovada, the chile is neither intense nor overly piquant, allowing for true porcine perfection. Most plates come with your choice of two of the following: Spanish rice, beans or papitas. Opt for the latter two. The papitas are golden hued cubes of perfectly salted potatoes. The Spanish rice is soupy and otherwise unremarkable, but that can be said about most Spanish rice in New Mexico.
The menu offers enchiladas with your choice of beef, chicken or Cheddar cheese engorged in rolled corn tortillas and topped with your choice of red or green chile (both if you prefer) and an optional fried egg on top. The red chile has an almost orange hue and is made from pods which have been blended to a pureed consistency. It’s not especially piquant, but it has a nice flavor ameliorated only with salt and garlic then thickened with flour. The green chile is finely chopped and is also only of mild piquancy. One of the highlights are the beans which may look refried, but are actually mashed and topped with shredded cheese.
It stands to reason that an Albuquerque institution would offer for dessert, a New Mexico dessert institution–biscochitos, the official state cookie of the great state of New Mexico. These tasty treasures are redolent with the flavor of anise with which each sweet orb is generously sprinkled. These biscochitos are absolutely addictive. You’ll want several, perhaps with a cup or two of coffee.
The Red Ball Cafe is a part of Albuquerque’s storied history. Moreover, its excellent food and attentive service ensure it will be a part of its promising future.
Red Ball Cafe
1303 South Fourth Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Biscochitos, Wimpy Burger, Carne Adovada, Enchiladas