Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one. It looked like it could run.
Up on its back and away I did ride,
Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico.
~El Paso by Marty Robbins
From the Texas cowboy immortalized in the Marty Robbins ballad to Walter White, Albuquerque’s favorite meth maker, through time immemorial whenever circumstances in the wild and rugged west have been at their most grim and perilous, even the most intrepid of heroes have escaped to the badlands of New Mexico. The badlands of New Mexico are an other-worldly expanse of naturally occurring topographical anomalies: undulating mounds, hulking hoodoos, elaborately eroding landscapes, precipitously balanced rocks of different forms and shapes in surreal color palettes. Ostensibly, the badlands make for a good hiding place.
Perhaps the baddest of New Mexico’s badlands is El Malpais, a term which translates from Spanish to “the bad lands,” but which has been defined in science as an extensive area of rough, barren lava flows. El Malpais hearkens back to the geologic era in which volcanoes spewed out molten lava over the high desert to form the primeval black basalt terrain which astonishes visitors. Interstate highway 40 bisects those ominous black lava flows as they meander past Grants, New Mexico, more than twenty miles away.
The history of Grants is punctuated by periods of economic malaise following periods of great prosperity. The most recent economic ebb and flow occurred during the boom generated by uranium mining followed by its decline. Through it all, the 10,000 or so citizens of Grants have remained a resilient and persevering lot. Today, the town of Grants is experiencing a resurgence courtesy of the area’s scenic beauty and an increase in tourism. The city is poised and primed to show off its natural surroundings and take great care of visitors. That includes feeding them well.
One of the most popular man-made attractions bringing in visitors from throughout New Mexico and beyond is Badlands Burgers & Tortas, likely the most well-known dining destination in Cibola county. Named for the nearby Malpais, Badlands Burgers is a family owned and operated little gem that has taken on the big guys and won. During the inaugural Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge in 2009, Badlands Burgers took on twenty purveyors of New Mexico’s sacrosanct sandwich and beat them all, earning first-place honors as well as induction into the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.
The Governor’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge was inspired by The Buckhorn Tavern‘s Bobby Olguin’s besting of Food Network glitterati Bobby Flay in a green chile cheeseburger challenge. It’s only fitting that a framed photograph of the governor who helped conceive the challenge hangs on the wall at Badlands Burgers. From all indications, Governor Bill Richardson enjoyed the burger very much. So did the hundreds of guests inspired to visit Grants to sample the award-winning green chile cheeseburger.
Unfortunately not long after its halcyon triumph, Badlands Burgers was forced to close when a state Environment Department inspector found the restaurant’s grease hood in violation of state requirements. Two years later on July 4th, 2012th, original owner Daniel Chavez partnered with friend Alfredo Garza to reopen Badlands Burgers in a landmark Grants location. The restaurant is now housed in the circa 1950s edifice which had long been the home of the Uranium Cafe.
The venerable restaurant abounds in charm and personality. The whitewashed exterior walls of the Uranium Cafe have been replaced by a dark cranberry color. Orange-yellow flames frame the windows. While the interior is somewhat timeworn, there’s something to capture your eye no matter where you turn. The multi-colored flooring resembles an interlocked puzzle with each individual piece being a six-inch rubber “tile.” On the wall in which Governor Richardson’s picture hangs is a 1936 map of New Mexico. Framed photographs of Grants’ mining heritage festoon another wall.
Breakfast is served daily from 7AM to 11AM with a six-item menu. The breakfast torta (eggs,cheese, mayo, beans and your choice of chorizo, bacon, ham, sausage or Spam) may be the most interesting item. The lunch menu lives up to the name on the marquee with eight burgers and seven tortas as well as a grilled or crispy chicken sandwich, California burrito and tacos. Time permitting, Daniel Chavez, as effusive and hands-on as any owner-chef you’ll find, will also prepare enchiladas for you. As with so many savvy New Mexican chefs, Daniel disdains cumin.
There are three starters on the menu, two of which are uncommon and uncommonly good. The Frito Pie Supreme, in fact, is one of the two very best Frito Pies we’ve had in New Mexico (the other being the carne adovada laced Frito Pie at Perea’s Tijuana Bar & Restaurant in Corrales). Instead of commercial, out-of-a-bag Fritos corn chips, the restaurant prepares its own Fritos. A generous amount of Fritos are topped with red and (or) green chili (sic), refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, sour cream and guacamole. The guacamole is superb–rich, creamy and redolent with freshness. Both the red and green chile are excellent with the type of flavor and piquancy New Mexicans love. The refried beans are exemplary.
Badlands Burgers is doing its part to combat the Monday morass by offering a more cheerful reason to enjoy Mondays. On Millie Mondays, the Millie Burger is offered at a discount. If nothing else goes right on your Monday, this burger will make your day. The Millie Burger is constructed from two one-third pound beef patties, guacamole, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, cheese and green chile. If you can’t open your mouth wide enough to accommodate such a beefy behemoth, you can ask for your burger to be made with only one third-pound beef patty. The Millie Burger is one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the Land of Enchantment, well worth a trip from Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Freshness and flavor are hallmarks of this burger which is crafted on an artisan bun made especially for the restaurant. The beef is juicy and delicious and unlike far too many green chile cheeseburgers, the chile actually bites back. It’s a very good chile on a great burger.
In honor of the “Mother Road” which once traversed through the city of Grants, Badlands Burgers offers the Route 66 Mushroom & Swiss Burger made with sautéed mushrooms, onions, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato. For textural and flavor contrasts within one ingredient, both caramelized and fresh red onions are used. The onions meld magnificently with the fleshy, earthy fungi which are plentiful on the lightly toasted buns. Adding mustard, ketchup or mayo to this superb burger might detract from a delightful flavor profile. Burgers are served with homestyle fries, but you can substitute seasoned fries or onion rings for a pittance more.
In March, 2013, Cheryl Jamison, architect of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail and New Mexico Magazine’s culinary editor published a blog post on her Tasting NM site in which she named Badlands Burgers and Tortas one of the top road food spots on New Mexico’s I-40 West. In September, 2013, Badlands competed in the annual state fair burger challenge, earning a third-place finish. Even though Grants is a bit off the well-traveled, well-beaten, well-eaten path, Badlands Burgers should not be missed by any burgerphile. It’s one of New Mexico’s very best.
Badlands Burgers & Tortas
519 West Santa Fe Avenue
Grants, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Millie Burger, Route 66 Mushroom & Swiss, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Frito Pie Supreme