Unlike diners throughout New Mexico, bears in the Sandias and Manzanos have found food in their mountain habitats very scarce, forcing them to forage populated areas for their fill. As of August 25th, 2011, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department had received 141 reports of bear sightings from Placitas to Belen, communities west of the mountains. In 2010, food shortages resulted in 467 reports of bear sightings in the Sandias and Manzanos, 251 of them west of the mountains.
Visit Estancia, New Mexico and you’re likely to encounter more Bears in one hour than residents along the Sandias and Manzanos will see in an entire year. So many, in fact, that you’d think they own the town. Bears walk around brazenly, proudly sporting seasonal reddish hues. They stride into restaurants and shops where they’re welcomed like the old friends and neighbors they are. That’s what life in a small community is like.
The Estancia Bears varsity sports teams are the only game in town and every resident of this close-knit community about half an hour east of Albuquerque’s Big I interchange is a fan. Local businesses carry Estancia Bears merchandise–shirts, baseball caps, beverage cups, coasters and more. Bears schedules and posters adorn the walls at businesses and decals are common on car and truck bumpers. Residents proudly sport Bears shirts and baseball caps. The Bears are the talk of the town, most conversations centering around the most recent game. Wins are attributed to skill and athleticism, losses to poor officiating.
While Bears sporting events are decided on the courts, stadiums, fields and diamonds of competition, it can be an entirely different matter for politics in Estancia. In 2008, a town trustee election was decided by a hand of five-card stud poker in accordance with a law decreeing that local elections resulting in a tie are settled by a card draw. This garnered national news, but it’s hardly the most unique event in Estancia’s colorful history. For a community of some 1,500 citizens, Estancia has seen its share of firsts, lasts and onlys.
Estancia was the site of New Mexico’s last hanging in 1922. It’s a community whose population once rivaled that of Albuquerque and one which survived severe drought which made ghost towns of similar communities throughout the west. While the prominence of New Mexico’s chile farming communities is well known, it’s not common knowledge that the Estancia valley produces more beans than any other region in the state with some 120,000 acres dedicated to growing our beloved frijole. Savvy New Mexicans who pilgrimage to Hatch for their chile drive to Estancia for their beans, too.
If ancient earthen edifices could talk, the Blue Ribbon Bar & Grill would keep you spellbound with interesting stories about life in Estancia. The Blue Ribbon was established in 1903, making it the oldest building in a community in which venerable structures exist with modernity. This centenarian was founded as the Valley Hotel and reputedly once housed a brothel, too. The Blue Ribbon has been a bar since prohibition, boasting of a beautiful wooden bar salvaged from a saloon in Colorado which was devastated by fire.
The Blue Ribbon Bar & Grill has been owned and operated by various members of the Ortiz family since 1974. It is currently owned by Danny and Ana Ortiz who added a restaurant in 2011 and quickly earned a reputation for serving the very best green chile cheeseburger in the county (the restaurant’s Web site goes further, boasting of the best green chili cheeseburger (sic) in the state). It’s a green chile cheeseburger worthy enough to be recognized on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail for 2011. A large poster signifying its place on the Trail hangs on one wall.
The Blue Ribbon is a sprawling edifice with telltale signs of its perdurability melding comfortably with modern touches and, of course, the requisite Estancia Bears memorabilia. The dining room is built for functionality over comfort, fittingly tailored for a menu with no pretensions to fine dining. Luminescence generated by beer lights probably outshines the wagon wheel light fixtures suspended from wooden planked ceilings, but Bud Light signage is hardly as charming. Large wooden support beams are affixed with wooden pegs (ostensibly for hanging coats). Two televisions add to the casual feel.
The ancient wooden bar, complete with bolted-on stools, is the cynosure of a charming bar area. It’s easy to imagine every stool occupied by Bears supporters even though the Blue Ribbon sold its full liquor license in 2007 and today serves only beer and wine. An outdoor patio includes horseshoe pits, the game of choice for Bears who no longer compete in varsity events. An adjacent room includes pool tables.
The grill portion of the complex is relatively small and includes a counter at which you place your order. The whirling dervish taking your order and delivering your food will be Ana Ortiz who also prepares your food. The menu, posted high on a wall to the right of the counter lists only a few items, mostly of the fast food variety: green chile cheeseburgers, hamburgers, taquitos, Frito pie, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwich, onion rings, shaved ice, ice cream, shakes and floats. Everything is prepared to order; there are no heat lamps at the Blue Ribbon.
The green chile cheeseburger is about six ounces of beef perfectly prepared at about medium well and covered by chile of medium piquancy draped over by molten American cheese. From there it’s up to you. A toppings bar replete with fresh chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, pickles, mustard, ketchup, relish and more is available for you to dress your burger your way. It’s a very good burger, well worthy of its inclusion on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. If there was an official New Mexico French Fry Trail, the Blue Ribbon’s fries would be on it. The fries are made from handcut potatoes fried to a golden hue. They are perfect accompaniment to the burger.
Other items on the small menu include hot dogs at one dollar each. The same hot dogs would easily go for two or three times as much in the city. Sam’s Warehouse variety taquitos go for two for a dollar, but only the homemade salsa is noteworthy. It’s a fresh salsa, the type with which you would want a basketful or two of chips. Chocolate shakes are handmade with fresh milk and ice cream. They’re served cold and are quite good.
One group which might not feel welcome at Estancia is MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network). That’s because things that fly through the air are well identified. Every year Estancia hosts a Pumpkinfest in which Bears and former Bears participate in a “Punkin Chunkin” event. This is quintessential small Americana, a day-long festival with food booths, carnival rides, arts and crafts and something for everyone. Something for everyone–that might pretty well sum up Estancia, a small town New Mexico gem.
Blue Ribbon Bar & Grill
315 South 5th Street
Estancia, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Taquitos, Hot Dog