Dusk is falling on the western town at the very edge of the parched plains. Fewer than a dozen buildings line the dusty main street. Howling winds impel tumbleweeds forward with no regard for obstacles in their path. Even though neither of the protagonists has uttered the old western cliché “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us,” the scene is always ripe for a confrontation between the two long-time rivals. You can cut the tension with a knife and fork and it would be utterly delicious.
This confrontation isn’t between the black-hearted, black hat wearing villain of western lore and his rival, the clean-cut, white chapeaued cowboy. It’s a rivalry between the Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern, two heralded hamburger havens separated by less than a block yet inextricably bound by national publications which champion them as among the best of their genre (in westerns, this would be the fastest guns in the west).
The Owl Cafe is among the most celebrated restaurants in New Mexico, touted for its incomparable green chile cheeseburger. In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern, rated the Owl’s green chile cheeseburger on Epicurious.Com as one of the top ten burgers in America. GQ magazine may have done one better, in 2005 naming Buckhorn Tavern the seventh best burger in America. Alan Richman who authored the article trumpeted the Buckhorn Burger as “the ultimate in a burger with a burn,” adding that the “Buckhorn makes the best green-chili cheeseburgers in a tiny town devoted to little else.” Not to be outdone, in 2009, Marlboro.com’s “Nightlife Flavor Roundup” named the Buckhorn’s green chile cheeseburger number three “baddest burger in the land.”
Confrontation has become commonplace in San Antonio–and not just between the most prolific purveyors of burgers in town. On May 14th, 2009 “bad boy” Bobby Flay, one of the world’s preeminent grill masters and a celebrated Food Network glitterati made his way, camera crew in tow, to challenge the Buckhorn’s proprietor Bobby Olguin, not to an old west style draw, but to a green chile cheeseburger “throwdown.” The concept of his show “Throwdown With Bobby Flay” is based on Flay challenging chefs from throughout the fruited plain to prepare the specialty for which they are known and to have judges decide which is tastier. The episode aired for the first time on July 22nd, 2009.
The Owl Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern have proven over the years that there is more than enough room in San Antonio, New Mexico for two outstanding practitioners (three if you count Bobby Flay) of the fine culinary art of crafting among the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the universe. Every ingredient complements the green chile which most burger aficionados say is every bit the equal of the one served at the world-famous Owl Cafe, if not better. As the restaurant’s affable proprietor Bob Olguin put it so succinctly on the Throwdown With Bobby Flay episode, “the green chile cheeseburger should taste like going to heaven or being married to somebody that you love and want to be with the rest of your life. It’s just indescribable.”
In between utterances of appreciation, the Food Network judges actually did describe the burgers very well. Rating the green chile cheeseburgers on three criteria–green chile flavor, authenticity and overall taste–the judges praised the combination of heat and flavor on Olguin’s entry. One judge found the green chile so hot he had to wipe his brow. In the final judge’s tabulation, Olguin’s burger reigned supreme, but the real winner was the Land of Enchantment which Flay praised effusively.
In recognition of Olguin’s victory, Governor Bill Richardson declared Friday July 24, 2009 “Buckhorn Tavern Day.” “Congratulations to the Buckhorn Tavern and its owner Bobby Olguin for the impressive victory over one of the world’s most recognized chefs,” Governor Richardson said. “Through his win, Mr. Olguin did an excellent job of showcasing one of New Mexico’s culinary treasures, the green chile cheeseburger.”
Manuel “Manny” Olguin relocated the Buckhorn Tavern to its present location in 1943 when, after leaving the service, he took over the family business from his father who started the family tradition in 1918. Although Manny passed away in 1998, the business continued to bear his name and was managed by Manny’s son Bob since a few years before his father passed away. Bob, who is burly and brawny enough not to catch any flack for wearing an apron in a manly western town, is a larger than life personality, an effusive and bombastic character who gave his Food Network namesake more than he could hand handle in terms of banter.
The restaurant is replete with eye-catching brickerbrack and haberdashery (okay, they’re just motorcycle tee-shirts), but most male eyes affix on a GQ cover featuring Jessica Simpson pre-Tony Romo in a barely there bikini. Simpson was on the cover of the magazine in which the Tavern was named the 7th best burger in America, so it’s only fitting that her image graces the restaurant’s walls and tables. Several racks (keep it clean, this is a family Web site) also adorn the walls.
When health concerns reared their ugly head, Manny Olguin put the Buckhorn Tavern up for sale. It remains in good hands under owners Ernie and Stephanie Sichler with their daughter Morgen. The Sichlers have longstanding ties with the community of San Antonio where you’ll find chile that bears their name for sale. As the Buckhorn website indicates, the Sichlers are not “out-of-towners” looking for some small town diner charm. Ernie was born and raised in San Antonio and the extended Sichler family has deep roots in San Antonio with their famous chile.While the burger which helped make San Antonio the green chile cheeseburger capital of New Mexico remains the Buckhorn’s signature, the menu has expanded to include a number of New Mexican (although labeled “Mexican”) food favorites such as burritos, enchiladas and even an Enchiladas Suizas plate. Though we have every confidence that they’re all quite delicious, we don’t get to San Antonio often enough to expand our repertoire. Until (or if) we’re able to visit San Antonio more frequently, it’ll always be the state’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger for me.
15 March 2022: For me, that means “The Mule,” a burger showcasing double-meat green chile patties weighing in at a whopping one-pound. Each mule comes with mustard, tomato, lettuce, chopped onion, pickles, cheese and ostensibly, green chile that packs a kick. (tourists certainly seem to think so according to our server). New Mexicans shouldn’t have any problem handling that green chile. Each patty on its own makes for a huge burger, easily big enough to share though you won’t want to. The beef used is 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat to give it a flavor as big as the stars that decorate night sky above the burger blessed town of San Antonio. The meat has long been pressed under a dinner plate, a family tradition that accounts for each burger’s uniformity.
Ingredients are unfailingly fresh as each burger is plucked off the grill at the optimum time with cheese melted to the point that it drapes itself over the beef without any residual oiliness. The Buckhorn Tavern uses only American cheese on their green chile cheeseburger and it drapes the cheese over chopped red onions. The beef is seasoned with granulated garlic, a little touch that imparts a surprising amount of flavor without the sometimes overwhelming pungency of garlic. The flavor combinations will make your mouth sing though you might sing a funeral dirge when the bottom bun falls apart after a bite or two. This burger is much too good to eat with a fork; experientially it feels like an act of heresy. For this reason along, I recommend ordering two Buckhorn burgers, single patty behemoths.
Fresh-cut French fries and onion rings are popular accompaniment to the Buckhorn’s burgers. A better, more New Mexican companion for any burger is a bowl of Ness Farms whole beans. Add green chile to the bowl and you will have paired New Mexico’s two official state vegetables–frijoles and chile. These frijoles come from Estancia, home to arguably (they won’t get any argument from me) the very best beans in the Land of Enchantment. A flour tortilla on the side can be used to fashion New Mexican spoons with which to scoop up one delicious spoonful after the other. The flour tortilla is flimsy, almost paper-thin, but it’s buttered and delicious.
Of course, no visit to any New Mexican restaurant is complete without salsa and chips, probably worthy of being designated New Mexico’s official state snack, appetizer or even condiment (at least the salsa). The salsa features finely chopped chile, tomato and onion and has a nice bite to it. The chips are thin and lightly salted, but they’re formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops. My Kim couldn’t handle the salsa so being the dutiful husband that I am, I made the sacrifice of polishing them off single-handedly.
It’s a matter of opinion as to which of San Antonio’s highly touted green chile cheeseburgers is best. Savvy diners will eat one at either the Buckhorn Tavern or the Owl Cafe then cross the street and have the other. To me, these burgers are so evenly matched that it’s not even worth discussing. Both are outstanding! Both are a credit to the great village of San Antonio. Both are on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail!
In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as state’s very best downhome green chile cheeseburger to the Buckhorn Tavern. Whether or not that honor will quell any disputes as to the best in San Antonio remains to be seen.
68 US Highway 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 15 September 2022
# OF VISITS: 4
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Buckhorn Burger, Salsa and Chips, French Fries, Onion Rings, Rio Grande Special, Beans with Green Chile and a Buttered Tortilla