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.
The chile (though spelled “chili” Texas style) at the Buckhorn is unmistakably New Mexican with a piquant bite that makes your lips tingle. Ironically, it’s not exclusively green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from Bueno Chile combined with chile from Sichler Farms and Rosales Chile. The reason given (and it makes sense) is that Bueno Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness.
The Buckhorn Burger, brought to your table cut in half, is a stout, fresh and lean ground chunk of beef dressed with the requisite green chile, cheese, lettuce, pickles, chopped onions, tomatoes and mustard. It is 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 is 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.
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 Manny who started the family tradition in 1918. Although Manny passed away in 1998, the business until rather recently bore his name and has been 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.
Fresh-cut French fries and onion rings are popular accompaniment to the Buckhorn’s burgers. A better way to have the French fries are on a menu item called the Rio Grande Special (pictured above). When delivered to your table you might wonder why you got a salad instead of what you ordered, but push away some of the lettuce and tomato and you’ll find a small mountain of French fries covered in green chile (or red if you prefer) and cheese. It’s a nice starter.
An excellent alternative is the salsa and chips. The salsa features finely chopped chile, tomato and onion and has a nice bite to it. The chips are thin and lightly salted.
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.
The Buckhorn Tavern is open Monday through Friday from 11AM to 7:50PM and on Saturday from 11AM to 3:30PM. Despite these posted hours, I encourage all prospective diners to please call ahead to ensure the restaurant is open.
68 US Highway 380
San Antonio, NM
LATEST VISIT: 13 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Buckhorn Burger, Salsa and Chips, French Fries, Onion Rings, Rio Grande Special