Shortly before 6AM. on July 16, 1945, some of the world’s most brilliant minds ushered in the nuclear age with the detonation of the first atomic bomb, an occasion which later prompted Los Alamos Laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer to declare “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The transformative event occurred in a dry, desolate locale approximately 35 miles from bucolic San Antonio, New Mexico, the gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The scientists who developed the top-secret bomb had been staying nearby in cabins rented from J.E. Miera, proprietor of Miera’s Owl Bar and Cafe.
Posing as “prospectors,” the scientists frequented Miera’s for enthusiastic card games, cold beer and grilled cheeseburgers. In time, Miera’s son Frank Chavez, began adorning the burgers with fiery-hot diced green chile, unwittingly inventing what is now a sacrosanct New Mexico icon, the green chile cheeseburger. Despite what other claimants may say, San Antonio’s Owl Cafe is the progenitor to what James Beard Award-winning writer (and former restaurant reviewer for The Alibi) Jason Sheehan described in 2011 as “America’s best cheeseburger.” The green chile cheeseburger is all that and so much more.
In the 1980s, Albuquerque entrepreneur Ski Martin purchased the franchise rights to the original Owl Cafe and in 1986 launched Albuquerque’s first Owl Cafe on Eubank just a couple blocks north of Interstate 40. With an upscale urban 50s ambiance and an anthropomorphic architecture featuring garish neon pink and turquoise lights, this metropolitan version has a much more expansive menu than the original restaurant, featuring several other sandwiches, some comfort food entrees and several New Mexican entrees. A complementary bowl of beans with San Antonio green chile (albeit spelled “chili”) after you’re seated is one of the highlights of dining at this Owl. A dessert display case may just have you wanting to lick the glass.
The one thing that might detract from giving your burger the full attention and adulation it deserves is the boisterous and crowded ambiance of the Eubank location. Throngs of hungry diners queue up for one of the booths in the elongated diner-style restaurant; less fortunate patrons (and children who want to spin around in them) are seated on the disc-shaped bar stools at the restaurant’s center. A 1950s style juke box (for Millennials, this is a coin-operated, partially automated music playing device that plays selected songs from a self-contained media) playing songs from bygone eras plays almost continuously. Smaller tableside jukeboxes are also available if you want the music closer to you.
Cheers went up when in 2004, Martin partnered with Frank Marcello (partner in other Albuquerque restaurant ventures such as Copeland’s and Zea’s and founder of the eponymous Marcello’s Chophouse) to launch Albuquerque’s second Owl Cafe in the Shops at I-25. In 2005, a third Owl Cafe opened on the West side (10131 Coors Blvd) where great burgers were (and still are) direly lacking. Alas, both satellites closed within two years. Twenty years after its launch, Albuquerque’s sole remaining Owl Cafe is still going strong. In April, 2016, it was featured on an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations.
Despite the more extensive menu offerings at the Eubank based Owl Cafe, the green chile cheeseburger is still the biggest attraction–and for good reason. The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and the world famous San Antonio green chile) are absolutely fresh. Ski Martin and his team of cooks prepare each and every burger the same way he learned to prepare them at the San Antonio parent restaurant.
On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns. The meat positively breaks apart (a telltale sign that filler isn’t used) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair. On occasion, the green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico. Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right. At other times, the green chile is barely noticeable and wouldn’t pose a bit of a threat to someone from, say, Mississippi. Maybe that’s what happens when you commit the cardinal offense of spelling it “chili.”
In 2009, the Owl Cafe (irrespective of location) was selected for inclusion into the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys. Though the green chile cheeseburger is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico, only 48 green chile cheeseburgers made it to this list. The Owl was a repeat listing on the 2011 version of the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, rates the green chile cheeseburger at Albuquerque’s Owl as the fourth best in the Land of Enchantment.
While the dissolution of the marital institution seems to become more prevalent every year, there’s one marriage that has and probably will withstand the ravages of time–that’s the culinary union of the burger and French fries. The Owl Cafe serves fresh-cut French fries that are among the very best in the city. Well salted and served with either red or green chile, these fries are fantastic. Like many good fries, the potatoes aren’t peeled. Perhaps even better are the sweet potato fries though you might just utter “fries be damned” if you opt for onion rings instead. These thin-sliced, lightly coated rings are the antithesis of the overly breaded out-of-the-bag variety you’ll find at most restaurants. The rings are served with a somewhat anemic horseradish sauce which could use more punch.
To make it a terrific triumvirate, order one of the Owl’s old-fashioned milk shakes or malts, both of which are thick, delicious and served cold. Favorite flavors include chocolate, pineapple, strawberry, Oreo, vanilla and butterscotch. Malts and shakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin, the way they were made in the 50s. They’re then served in a shake glass with the tin on the side, much like getting a shake and a half. No 50s era diner would be complete without phosphates and egg creams and the Owl makes these well.
The New Mexican food menu includes many popular favorites including enchiladas, a combination plate, quesadillas and carne adovada (unfortunately made with cumin). Mom’s favorite quesadilla is one of the very best of its genre in town. Sandwiched between two grilled tortillas sliced pizza style are refried beans, two types of melted Cheddar cheese, bacon and green chile. The refried beans are terrific with a smoky aftertaste perhaps ameliorated by the crisp bacon. The quesadilla is served with plastic tubs of guacamole, salsa and sour cream.
The dessert case usually includes several pies–apple, blueberry, peach and pecan, for example. These pies taste better than they look. One of the things which makes them special is a thin, crispy and buttery crust. The other is the fruit fillings–real fruit, not the gelatinous, over-sweetened gunk. The blueberry actually tastes like blueberry. The pies are best served warm and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream.
22 May 2016: The sandwich menu includes all the “usual suspects” found at most self-respecting cafes and diners. You’ll find grilled cheese done three different ways, club sandwiches, French dip, Reubens and even a cold meatloaf sandwich. You’ll also find a classic patty melt and a chile-infused variation called the Albuquerque Melt (Swiss cheese, grilled onions and green chili on grilled rye). New Mexicans know that green chile improves nearly every dish to which it is added, including several desserts. You may not ever again want a patty melt sans green chile. That’s how significant the improvement is. It also helps that The Owl’s beef patties are perfectly seasoned, generously proportioned and prepared to a medium-well deliciousness. The light rye bread lets bolder flavors shine–flavors such as the sweet, caramelized onions and the mild meltedness of the Swiss cheese.
22 May 2016: Hawaii’s contribution to America’s burgeoning hot dog culture is the Puka Dog (puka, in this case, having nothing to do with the hipster beads worn in the 70s). Larry will be heartened to hear the puka dog does not include spam. It does involve a hunk of sweet bread being impaled on a heated rod, effectively toasting it on the inside while leaving the outside soft. The resultant hot dog shaped hole is filled with a grilled hot dog and a fruit relish (mango, pineapple, papaya, coconut and banana for example). The Owl Cafe’s Hawaiian Dog is loosely patterned on the puka dog. Nestled into a more conventional toasted hot dog bun is a split hot dog topped with a mango-pineapple salsa. It’s not always a given that “salsa” implies piquant. This salsa is dessert sweet, contrasting the salty smokiness of the hot dog. It’s a combination not everyone will appreciate, but one no diner should dismiss without trying.
18 April 2019: Like many 1950s diners, the Owl Cafe features a daily “blue plate special.” Ironically the term “blue plate special” originated not in the 1950s, but in the 1890s courtesy of the Fred Harvey restaurants along the railroad lines of the frontier west. I’ve written extensively in other reviews of Fred Harvey’s culinary contributions to the West. Like his other contributions, the genesis of the blue plate special is very interesting. Apparently Harvey bought cheap, disposable plates colored blue similar to Wedgwood dishes and used them to serve inexpensive meals, hence the term.
Even though it’s served on a light green plate, the chicken fried steak at the Owl Café is one of the restaurant’s blue plate specials (along with other timeless favorites such as homemade meatloaf, hot turkey dinner, hot roast beef dinner and spaghetti marinara). It’s also the special of the day on Mondays. As habitues of Gil’s Thrilling… know, chicken fried steak is also a favorite food of Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver who founded a Trail to document his pursuit of the best chicken fried steak in the Duke City metropolitan area. The Owl Café’s version is topped with a meatless cream gravy and is served with mashed potatoes, vegetables and a hot roll. In terms of plate coverage, it’s not among the largest in the city and it’s breaded a bit more thickly than many we’ve had, but it’s deeply satisfying in the tradition of all comfort foods.
The most adamant detractors (you know the type–averse to change of any kind even though their last visit to the San Antonio Owl was decades ago) contend this Northeast Heights restaurant probably shouldn’t even bear the name of the original classic. Me, I think The Owl is very competitive in an increasingly better burger market. When its chile is hot, the Owl rocks!
LATEST VISIT: 18 April 2019
# OF VISITS: 12
BEST BET: Green Chili Cheeseburger; French Fries; Chocolate Shake; Beans; Blueberry Pie ala mode; Mom’s Favorite Quesadilla; Albuquerque Melt; Onion Rings; Sweet Potato Fries; Hawaiian Dog, Chicken Fried Steak;