When it comes to staycations (stay at home vacations), New Mexicans rank near the bottom among America’s traveling public. Citizens of the Land of Enchantment, it seems, prefer to spend their discretionary income elsewhere. Monique Jacobson, Secretary of New Mexico’s Tourism Department, hopes to change that with a number of initiatives targeted at reminding New Mexico’s citizenry of all there is to do and see in our state.
During the press conference in which she introduced the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011, Secretary Jacobson stressed that in addition to New Mexico’s natural treasures and storied past, culinary tourism–traveling throughout the state to experience its unique cuisine–is one of the best reasons to travel in New Mexico. It’s something about which she’s personally very passionate, admitting to having consumed five green chile cheeseburgers during her first week back in the state after a stint as a marketing executive for Pepsi.
As a practitioner of frequent “daycations” (day-long trips near home) throughout the Land of Enchantment, I take Secretary Jacobson’s words to heart. Inspired by her heartfelt testimony about culinary tourism and vacationing near home, my first daycation following her press conference would be in pursuit of yet another of New Mexico’s iconic burgers, preferably one on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail I helped put together–or alternatively, a burger which should perhaps have been considered for inclusion on the Trail.
In the latter category is a burger served in a small hamlet just twelve miles northeast of the geographical center of New Mexico. Willard is home to 240 people in under one square mile of land though “locals” might actually live on small family farms anywhere within a sixty-mile radius or so. It’s also home to the Willard Cantina & Cafe whose signage proclaims it as the home of “chile with attitude.” If attitude has arousing olfactory qualities, then attitude wafts toward you the moment you disembark from your vehicle. The aroma of simmering chile is like a siren’s call beckoning weary and hungry sojourners to this converted home.
The Willard Cantina & Cafe has served the small village since 1986 though it was closed for a short time before being bought and reopened by Alex and Lisa Garcia in 2005. It’s open seven days a week and has become a favorite watering hole for bikers who make up a large segment of the dining population on weekends. The biker business is so valued that the very best parking spaces in front of the restaurant are reserved for them.
The bikers seem to like the cantina which is what you step into as you walk through the front door. A small, homey dining room with a view to the kitchen is also available. “Chile with attitude” is emphasized not only with the capsaicin perfumed air, but on the art on the wall where one painting (as well as the menu cover) depicts two anthropomorphic chile peppers–a red chile with hands on hips and a green chile with arms crossed, both obviously copping an attitude.
Alas, the salsa doesn’t have the attitude we hoped for. It’s actually quite mild, in fact. A complementary bowl served with crisp, low in salt chips arrives at your table shortly after you do. Not having “attitude” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the salsa is quite good. We polished off a bowlful quickly and wanted more as we perused the menu which offers several appetizers: quesadilla, fried zucchini, fried cheese, battered mushrooms, nachos supreme, chile con queso and guacamole.
The quesadilla, two large flour tortillas stuffed with Jack cheese and green chile along with your choice of ground beef or chicken, showcases green chile that does indeed have an attitude. It’s pleasantly piquant with a nice roasted flavor and aroma and there’s plenty of it. There’s more green chile, in fact, than there is ground beef. The ground beef is freshly fried, not refried as some restaurants tend to do. It’s also seasoned nicely and complements the green chile very well. If you’re tired of “designer” quesadillas with sundry ingredients, this is a “back to basics” quesadilla with memorable qualities.
Even though ample opportunity is afforded all New Mexicans to nominate and vote for green chile cheeseburgers they believe should be on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, the committee (of which I’m a part) which puts the Trail together seems to hear as much about which burgers were excluded from the Trail as we do about those selected: “Why didn’t you pick the burger from…?” “Where’s the burger from…?” Though committee members are all certified (certifiable?) burgerphiles, we sometimes miss one…or a few Trail worthy burgers.
The Willard Cantina & Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger is Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail worthy! It’s an outstanding burger, one of the ten best among those I’ve sampled throughout the state. Perhaps all the bikers who frequent the restaurant didn’t vote for it for fear their little secret would be discovered. As at other restaurants, you won’t find a green chile cheeseburger on the menu. What you will find is a Cantina Burger (served with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and pickles) with extras for a pittance each. Green chile and cheese (American, Jack, nacho or Swiss) are extras. They should not be missed!
The hand-formed beef is at least eight-ounces of thick deliciousness that extends beyond the six-inch buns. It’s prepared perfectly with plenty of juiciness when done at medium. The cheese is melted atop the beef patty then the green chile is piled on generously. There’s so much green chile that some of it falls off the burger. Use the French fries to dredge up that chile; it’s much better than ketchup.
Should Cheryl Jamison ever decide the culinary tourism initiative needs a New Mexico Enchiladas Trail, the Willard Cantina & Cafe’s enchiladas belong on it, too. The enchilada plate–two rolled enchiladas with cheese, onions and your choice of chile–is served with New Mexican pinto beans and Spanish rice. The addition of ground beef and a fried egg on top is icing on the proverbial cake, the only way to improve these enchanting enchiladas. They’re reminiscent of enchiladas from Southern New Mexico as opposed to those served in my beloved north, reminding me, in fact, of the enchiladas at Chope’s which were named “best enchiladas” in New Mexico Magazine’s “Best Eats” edition for 2011. That’s high praise indeed. That’s how good these enchiladas are.
The Spanish rice is good, too, but the beans are wonderful. They come from Aiken Farms in nearby Estancia. New Mexicans who love beans know that the very best beans are grown in the Estancia valley where more than 120,000 acres are dedicated to the pulchritudinous pinto bean. You can taste the difference! These are the best beans I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time.
The menu features four sandwiches including the Cantina Wrap: bacon, chopped chile, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes rolled in a warm flour tortilla with a side of guacamole and French fries. There might be a full two rashers of thick, smoky bacon in this sandwich. The bacon and green chile definitely steal the show. Only a thicker, more substantial tortilla could improve this sandwich.
The Willard Cantina & Cafe offers several desserts, but they’re not homemade. New Mexican entrees are served with sopaipillas and honey-flavored syrup and that’s enough dessert for many guests.
For a staycation in the Land of Enchantment, Willard, New Mexico is an excellent choice. For lunch or dinner, the Willard Cantina & Cafe is an outstanding one! This is the type of restaurant adventurous travelers will discover for themselves once they venture out and enjoy all our enchanting state has to offer.
Willard Cantina & Cafe
21820 Highway 60
Willard, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Enchilada Plate, Green Chile Cheeseburger, The Cantina Wrap, Quesadilla