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 on Central Avenue 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. Essentially following the Camino Real, which connected Durango, Mexico to Santa Fe, Route 66 traversed south from Santa Fe through Albuquerque and the Barelas Neighborhood to Isleta Boulevard then onto Los Lunas where the legendary Mother Road took a north-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 a 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 while maintaining many of the restaurant’s original touches. J. Wellington Wimpy and other characters from the Popeye strip continued to feature prominently on interior and exterior walls and signage. A painting of the Santuario de Chimayo in autumn festooned the foyer (it still does). Old-timers enjoyed seeing a painted red ball depicting 1942 prices such as the five cent Wimpy burger and the forty cent hamburger steak.
Unfortunately, the Red Ball Cafe would shutter its doors anew in 2014. It would remain closed until September, 2018 when a former employee assumed day-to-day operational responsibilities. Not much has changed, not even hours of operation (7:30AM to 2PM) though breakfast is no longer served all day long. The menu has most of the familiar favorites that made it a community favorite. The real continuity, however, isn’t in everything that remained the same; it’s in the spirit of guests who live in the area and have always loved the Red Ball Cafe. I sat in personal space proximity to a table of twelve of them as they spiritedly discussed sports, politics, neighborhood gossip and the nostalgia of being back in their favorite cafe. One claimed to have coined the phrase “Burque” way back in 1977. Most of them ordered the Wimpy Burger.
17 October 2018: The Wimpy Burger is no longer just five cents as it was in 1942, but it’s still a bargain at just south of three dollars (fifty cents more if you want cheese). It’s a tad bigger than the White Castle slider to which it’s often compared. In fact, if memory serves me, it’s about the size of a McDonald’s single burger (which hasn’t crossed my lips since the 70s). The Wimpy Burger’s “special sauce” is and always has been red chile the color of DayGlo. What it lacks in piquancy, it makes up for in quantity (you’ll need a couple napkins). It’s a snack sized burger and it might take three or four of them to make a meal, but the Wimpy Burger is quite good.
Quite good is a descriptor of all Red Balls burgers we’ve tried over the years. 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.
17 October 2018: In New Mexico, the true measure of a restaurant’s burger greatness is how good its green chile cheeseburger is. Offer a great one and everyone will know about it. The Red Ball Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger has all the elements (six-ounce burger served on a sesame seed bun, lettuce, pickles, onions, tomatoes and green chile) to be a great one even though chile is misspelled (chili) throughout the menu. The sesame seed buns are nicely toasted. The six-ounce beef patty is hand-formed. Melted American cheese blankets the beef. All the vegetables are fresh.
Wouldn’t you know that Murphy would accompany me for my inaugural green chile cheeseburger fix at the reborn Red Ball? The green chile had absolutely no bite–or about as much piquancy as a bell pepper. My server assured me the restaurant (and the Barelas neighborhood) prefers chile “extra hot” and that the same green chile cheeseburger has been known to bring buckets of sweat to diners’ foreheads. Yep, the phenomenon of a meek and mild batch among more assertive chile struck again. Next time, I’ll ask to for a sample of the green chile first then even if it’s potently piquant, will ask for a double batch. Pain is a flavor this gastronome likes.
The Red Ball Cafe no longer offers a complimentary bowl of salsa and chips, but for a dollar it’s a bargain. By my fire-eater standards, the salsa isn’t particularly piquant, but it’s got 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. You’ll finish the salsa long before you run out of chips.
As I tend to do during our inaugural visit to a New Mexican restaurant, I 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 me assurances that the menu would be authentically New Mexican. That’s the way it’s always been at the Red Ball Cafe.
The Red Ball Cafe is a part of Albuquerque’s storied history. It’s great to have it back in the neighborhood which loves it so much.
Red Ball Cafe
1303 South Fourth Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 17 October 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Wimpy Burger, Green Chile Cheeseburger