In a May, 2009 edition of New Mexico Magazine feature celebrating “20 reasons Rail is Cool Now,” the magazine’s staff and contributors shared the best things to experience via the New Mexico Railrunner Express.” A Duke City notable was root beer at the Route 66 Malt Shop and Grill, then about three miles from the nearest Railrunner depot. The magazine encouraged readers to “order a frosty mug of homemade award-winning root beer, or make it a float.” While you’re at it, the magazine suggested “sinking your teeth into the signature Blue Cheese Green Chile Burger. Dee-lish.”
Ironically just as the magazine was hitting the newsstands, the Route 66 Malt Shop’s west-facing windows were scrawled with the alarming words “Lost Our Lease, Being Evicted.” To the consternation of hundreds of loyal patrons who signed petitions on the restaurant’s behalf, the developer who owns the building in which the restaurant was housed apparently had other plans for it. Owners Diane Avila and Eric Szeman were unable to reach an accord with their landlord and had to close the beloved institution they operated for so long.
To call an 845 square foot hole-in-the-wall an institution is a testament to how firmly entrenched and highly regarded this classic 50’s themed mom-and-pop became in the course of its fourteen years in the Old Town area. With seating for only 20, dining was in cramped quarters, but that somehow only made the restaurant seem more comfy cozy. Diners got to know the affable, often loquacious owners and usually chatted up their neighbors in the close proximity tables, too. Dining at the Route 66 Malt Shop always seemed to have a communal feel to it.
In August 2010, the little restaurant with a gigantic personality reopened in a venue more than twice the size of its previous Lilliputian digs. Now situated in a 2,200 square-foot space in the fashionable Nob Hill area (two blocks east of Carlisle), the new Route 66 Malt Shop resembles a classic neon-spangled 50’s diner with 21st century spit and polish inside and out. The spacious accommodations are buttressed against an apartment complex. From Central Avenue, the expansive concrete area in front of the restaurant may, at first glance, resemble a parking lot, but this area is intended for patio seating. That’s something else the previous location didn’t offer.
The interior is a mishmash of familiar and new. Thematic remnants from the original restaurant festoon the walls in the form of Route 66 brick-a-brack. The post art-deco restaurant pays loving tribute to America’s highway and is adorned with thematic posters and period antiques such as an old Coke-A-Cola machine and a retro gas pump. Nostalgia abounds throughout the restaurant, but conspicuous by its absence is Szeman’s conservative ideology which was unabashedly on display on the counter as you walked in to the original restaurant. It made for interesting banter between the owner and patrons who weren’t like-minded ideologically.
The black-and-white checkerboard square tile motif from the original restaurant was retained as was the old-fashioned jukebox. The spacious kitchen is no longer visible from anywhere in the restaurant as was the tiny kitchen (if you could call it that) at the original. With a 30-foot long cook line (ten times larger than at the previous milieu), the capacious kitchen is a dream for Diane and Eric who have been able to expand their menu and even their serving hours, now offering breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Among the lunch and dinner menu additions are French and sweet potato fries, items for which the burger loving public long clamored. The Route 66 Malt Shop is now open from 8AM to 10PM every day, hours made possible because the restaurant is now staffed with employees nearly as enthusiastic as the owners. In fact, both Diane and Eric were absent during our inaugural visit to their new restaurant, the cooking duties being handled capably by their son. Though we enjoyed our meal immensely, we missed visiting with the personable owners, both being Mother Road institutions themselves.
True to its name, it is indeed an old-fashioned malt shop, one of the few restaurants in the Duke City to offer “phosphates,” homemade root beer and even my New York City favorite, egg creams. The home-made root beer on tap is brewed on site and served up in frosty, ice-code mugs. It’s definitely not the sweetest root beer you’ll ever have, but it’s full-bodied, hearty and has that lingering taste root beer aficionados (like me) love. Szeman calls it an “adult root beer” and the “Guinness of root beers.” It is wonderfully herbaceous and dry (like a fine, dry wine). Luke’s Root Beer Reviews ranked this exclusive Route 66 offering the third best root beer in America. As good as it is by itself, it’s better as a float because the Route 66 Malt Shop uses Breyer’s Premium ice cream.
“Get your kicks on Route 66” is the mantra of nostalgic motorists who have lobbied for generations to preserve the heritage that is America’s “mother road”, the 2,448 mile highway commissioned in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985 and which traversed eight states between Chicago, Illinois and Santa Monica, California. “Get your green chile cheeseburger at the Route 66 Malt Shop” has become the mantra for savvy Duke City (and beyond) devotees of outstanding burgers. Gourmet burgers remain the restaurant’s mainstay.
All burgers come standard with green leaf lettuce, vine ripe tomatoes, sauteed or raw onions and pickle slices on a custom baked bun (toasted) with your choice of ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise. You can adorn your burger with your choice of Cheddar, American, Blue or Alpine Lace Swiss cheese for a pittance. Other options (at a cost) include mushrooms, green chile, avocado, bacon and blue cheese. Rapacious appetites can even ask for a double-meat burger (each patty weighing in at 1/4-pound).
The green chile cheeseburgers feature a quarter pound of lean beef (best prepared at about medium) provided by a local non-chain butcher shop. It’s easily one of the juiciest (six napkins) cheeseburgers in town. It is endowed with piquant, seasoned green chile, not the cold chopped pretender other burger joints purvey. It’s the favorite green chile cheeseburger of world famous sculptor Sonny Rivera, an Albuquerque native and like him, it’s a New Mexico treasure. In 2009, this green chile cheeseburger was selected for inclusion in the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.
While fashionistas may frown on a blue and green ensemble, they would fawn over the Route 66 Malt Shop’s bleu cheese green chile burger in which the contrasting yet complementary tastes of oh so hot green chile and sharp bleu cheese compete and coalesce to provide a memorable taste sensation. The buns are toasted on the same grill as the meat patties, so they’re splashed with meaty juiciness. The patties are spritzed while they grill with Route 66’s own “special sauce” for additional moistness.
When you think formidable appetite, think the Route 66 Malt Shop’s Duessen-Burger, a half-pound green chile cheeseburger with bacon, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato. It’s essentially a chopped steak and it’s thick, juicy and only for the most famished of diners. If a half-pound is just a tad more than you can handle, the Cadillac burger offers the same toppings as the Duessen-Burger, but at a more svelte one-third pound. You won’t go away hungry, but you will go away planning a future visit.
If you’re a hot dog aficionado, the grilled Two Lane Hot Dog featuring a Hebrew National wiener is for you. It’s an oversized hot dog with oversized taste. It’s absolutely not one of those bloated wieners that might make you wonder if it’s a compensatory machination of some sorts. While not two inches in circumferences, these waifishly thin wieners, allow a full-flavor experience: wiener, mustard, relish and toasted buns. These beauties are sliced diagonally in half then are grilled to perfection.
The pastrami sandwich is surprisingly good–even though the Route 66 Malt Shop uses a Boar’s Head pastrami which tends to be much more on the lean side than pastrami paramours like me prefer. What makes this a more than passable pastrami is the way it is sliced–in razor-thin shards–and the lightly toasted house made light rye bread in which it is stacked thickly. It is served with mustard–no cheese or pickles–just mustard the way it should be. Order it with a side of potato salad for an interesting textural and flavor contrast.
An even better sandwich, maybe the best of its kind in Albuquerque is the meatloaf sandwich, one of seven specialty sandwiches on the menu. This beautiful behemoth is two slices of meatloaf, each about half an inch thick, smothered in grilled onions and Swiss cheese on your choice of whole grain, rye or multi-grain bread. My friend Andrea Lin, restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal, has called it a “to die for” sandwich, an assessment that’s spot on. The meat loaf is moist and delicious with just a smear of a tangy barbecue sauce for contrast. The grilled onions are sweet tangles of deliciousness while the Swiss cheese lends a textural contrast. After having ordered my first Route 66 Malt Shop meatloaf sandwich in December, 2010, I may forever be torn between this sumptuous sandwich and a green chile cheeseburger.
For sandwiches and burgers, there may be no better accompaniment than fries, either French fries or sweet potato fries. The Route 66 Malt Shop hadn’t been able to offer fries in its previous location, but now offers some of the very best in town. The sweet potato fries certainly are. They’re thick and perfectly fried to provide a crispy exterior and soft interior. They’re also served hot to the touch with a room-temperature ketchup. A basket of these tubers will easily serve two.
Barbara Walters once said “A hot fudge sundae and a trashy novel is my idea of heaven.” Not only is the ice cream sundae simplicity itself–a scoop or two of ice cream, a sweet topping and the ubiquitous whipped cream and cherry on top–it is truly an American icon. At the Route 66 Malt Shop, you can have the sundae your way (hot fudge, strawberry, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, pineapple and butterscotch) or you can have a banana hot fudge sundae in which the inimitable flavor combination of chocolate and bananas just melts in your mouth.
The old-fashioned soda fountain features hand-scooped ice cream which can be fashioned into malts or shakes, sundaes, ice cream sodas, banana splits and who can forget black cows (a Coke float with chocolate syrup and chocolate ice cream) and brown cows (a Coke float with chocolate syrup). The malts and shakes are served teeth-rattling cold and so thick you might dispense with your straw and drink them straight. Malt and shake flavors include chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cherry, raspberry, blueberry, pineapple, butterscotch, Oreo, peanut butter, banana, coffee mocha, sherbet shake, crunchberry shake, lime shake and root beer shake.
Dessert du jour offerings showcase Diane’s skills with the sweet stuff. Alas, she bakes cakes and pies in limited amounts which usually don’t last long. Show up late and you’ll miss out and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on such sweet treats as the cinnamon rolls. Not overly thick or large, these sensational spirals are redolent with cinnamon and a sweet, buttery glaze. Ask for them to be served warm.
Not only does the Route 66 Malt Shop claim a vast local fan base, it has won over all local restaurant critics and has snared national attention in such magazines as True West and Sunset. It’s a restaurant at which memories are made! In their new home, they’ll be making even more memories.
Route 66 Malt Shop
3800 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 9
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Bleu Cheese Green Chile Burger, Root Beer, Root Beer Float, Two Lane Hot Dog, Banana Hot Fudge Sundae, Meatloaf Sandwich, Homemade Cinnamon Rolls, Sweet Potato Fries