Some self-proclaimed pundits postulate that a wise owl should have told this restaurant’s proprietors not to expand beyond the original, but with that mindset we might all still be listening to cassette and eight-track tapes instead of iPods. A more sagacious owl would advise if you do something exceptionally well, why not try duplicating your success.
The original Owl Cafe in bucolic San Antonio, New Mexico, has been serving, to worldwide acclaim, the most famous green chile cheeseburger in the world for more than sixty years. Since its inauspicious debut in 1949, the original Owl has garnered recognition as one of the best purveyors burgers of any kind in America by (among many others) Michael and Jane Stern writing for the Epicurious Web site. Jason Sheehan, erstwhile restaurant critic for Albuquerque’s Alibi and now writing for Denver’s Westword will tell you the Owl Cafe serves the best cheeseburger in the world.
In the 1980s, the franchise rights to the original Owl Cafe were purchased by Ski Martin who launched Albuquerque’s first Owl Cafe on busy Eubank. With an upscale urban 50s ambiance and an anthropomorphic architecture featuring garish neon pink and turquoise lights, this metropolitan version has a much more expansive menu than the original restaurant, featuring several other sandwiches, some comfort food entrees and several New Mexican entrees. A complementary bowl of beans with San Antonio green chile (albeit spelled “chili”) after you’re seated is one of the highlights of dining at this Owl. A dessert display case may just have you wanting to lick the glass.
The one thing that might detract from giving your burger the full attention and adulation it deserves is the boisterous and crowded ambience of Eubank location. Throngs of hungry diners queue up for one of the booths in the elongated diner-style restaurant; less fortunate patrons (and children who want to spin around in them) are seated on the disc-shaped barstools at the restaurant’s center. A 1950s style juke box (for those born in the 90s, this is a coin-operated, partially automated music playing device that plays selected songs from a self-contained media) playing songs from bygone eras plays almost continuously. Smaller tableside jukeboxes are also available if you want the music closer to you.
Cheers went up when in 2004, Martin partnered with Frank Marcello (partner in other Albuquerque restaurant ventures such as Copeland’s and Zea’s) to launch Albuquerque’s second Owl in the Shops at I-25. In 2005, a third Owl Cafe opened on the West side (10131 Coors Blvd) where great burgers are direly lacking. Alas, both satellites closed within two years.
Despite the more extensive menu offerings at the Eubank based Owl Cafe, the green chile cheeseburger is still the biggest attraction–and for good reason. The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and the world famous San Antonio green chile) are absolutely 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 its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair. On occasion, 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. At other times, the green chile is barely noticeable and wouldn’t pose a bit of a threat to someone from, say, Mississippi. That’s what happens when you commit the cardinal offense of spelling it “chili.”
In 2009, the Owl Cafe was selected for inclusion into the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys. Though the green chile cheeseburger is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico, only 48 green chile cheeseburgers made it to this list.
While the dissolution of the marital institution seems to become more prevalent every year, there’s one marriage that has and probably will withstand the ravages of time–that’s the culinary union of the burger and French fries. The Owl Cafe serves fresh-cut French fries that are among the very best in the city. Well salted and served with either red or green chile, these fries are fantastic. Like many good fries, the potatoes aren’t peeled.
To make it a terrific triumvirate, order one of the Owl’s old-fashioned milk shakes or malts, both of which are thick, delicious and served cold. Favorite flavors include chocolate, pineapple, strawberry, Oreo, vanilla and butterscotch. Malts and shakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin, 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. No 50s era diner would be complete without phosphates and egg creams and the Owl makes these well.
The New Mexican food menu includes many popular favorites including enchiladas, a combination plate, quesadillas and carne adovada (unfortunately made with cumin). Mom’s favorite quesadilla is one of the very best of its genre in town. Sandwiched between two grilled tortillas sliced pizza style are refried beans, two types of melted Cheddar cheese, bacon and green chile. The refried beans are terrific with a smoky aftertaste perhaps ameliorated by the crisp bacon. The quesadilla is served with plastic tubs of guacamole, salsa and sour cream.
The dessert case usually includes several pies–apple, blueberry, peach and pecan, for example. These pies taste better than they look. One of the things which makes them special is a thin, crispy and buttery crust. The other is the fruit fillings–real fruit, not the gelatinous, over-sweetened gunk. The blueberry actually tastes like blueberry. The pies are best served warm and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream.
The most adamant detractors (you know the type–averse to change of any kind even though their last visit to the San Antonio Owl was decades ago) contend this Northeast Heights restaurant probably shouldn’t even bear the name of the original classic. Me, I think The Owl surpasses, by far, any of the ubiquitous chains to which American appetites gravitate and is very competitive in an otherwise unspectacular burger market. When its chile is hot, the Owl rocks!
The Owl Cafe
800 Eubank, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 1 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Green Chili Cheeseburger; French Fries; Chocolate Shake; Beans; Blueberry Pie ala mode; Mom’s Favorite Quesadilla