While watching a “sanitized for television” version of the audacious satirical comedy Blazing Saddles, my precocious six-year-old niece asked several questions with deep sociological implications: “Why is everyone in the town of Rock Ridge named Johnson? Why were all the town’s citizens white?” From her silence, you’d think my Kim was a “perp lawyering up” at a police inquiry. Rather than responding herself, she enjoyed seeing my brother and I hem and haw in trying to give accurate and age-appropriate answers. Far easier to answer were Blazing Saddles questions which inspired nostalgic reflection: “Is there a Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Albuquerque? Does Howard Johnson’s really serve only one flavor?”
For those of us who grew up in the dark ages, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were almost as ubiquitous as McDonald’s are today. During its halcyon days (peaking in 1975), more than 1,000 “Ho Jo’s” restaurants and motor lodges dotted the American landscape, their distinctive orange roofs a familiar beacon for hungry sojourners. Among the restaurants’ culinary draws were its 28 flavors of butterfat-enhanced ice cream and fried clam strips, an exotic offering theretofore available only in New England. The Marriott Corporation’s 1982 acquisition of all Howard Johnson’s properties signaled the precipitous beginning of the end of the once popular and profitable restaurant. Today, a sole remaining Howard Johnson’s restaurant (in Lake George, New York) remains from among more than 1,000 original restaurants.
Having returned to the Land of Enchantment in 1979 after a two-year Air Force assignment to Massachusetts, this inveterate fried clam aficionado craved the plump, intensely-flavored paragons of deliciousness. Only Howard Johnson’s provided an approximation, albeit waifishly thin, desiccated strips (sorry Bob) vastly inferior to the tender, juicy whole bellied clams available seaside throughout New England. Despite having to settle for crummy clams, Howard Johnson’s became a frequent stop, a milieu of memories. When the Albuquerque Howard Johnson’s restaurant on Eubank gave up the ghost in the early 1980s, I mourned. Where now would fried clams be found?
When Mary Ann Schaefer, a long-time friend of this blog wrote to tell me about the Toro Burger Bar in Rio Rancho’s Howard Johnson hotel, it wasn’t the prospect of juicy, beefy burgers which came to mind, but my beloved fried clams. Nonetheless, her enthusiasm for the burgers would be the impetus for a visit. We hadn’t visited the hotel since it housed Wine and Roses, a rather good German restaurant. That was more than a decade ago when the hotel was the Inn at Rio Rancho. The Inn became a Howard Johnson’s property in 2014.
Since Wine and Roses shuttered its doors so many years ago, a number of restaurant concepts gave it the old college try in the Inn’s restaurant space but none had the staying power engendered by customer loyalty. The seemingly du jour concept during the conversion from Inn at Rio Rancho to Howard Johnson’s was the Toro Bar and Grill which offered dinner service seven days a week. It garnered the same level of enthusiasm as another tumbleweed rolling onto the street. We surmised the name change to Toro Burger was just a rebranding-repackaging effort offering the same uninspiring fare. Boy were we wrong!
Toro Burger is a terrific restaurant, one every burger aficionado in the metropolitan area should visit. Ryan, an inventive Indiana born-and-bred chef has suffused the menu with some of the most superb and innovative burgers in the Land of Enchantment. Chef Ryan’s previous gig in New Mexico was at Annapurna. Now he’s doing his own thing and creating culinary magic. You’ll be hard-pressed to decide which burger or sandwich to order, so tempting are the choices. Even better, the beef is ground daily on the premises from three different cuts of steak. That means superior burgers! All burgers come with your choice of patty–house ground beef, turkey, veggie, chorizo-beef blend or lamb–on a potato bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, burger sauce (unless noted) and your choice of side. You can also ask for your burger to be wrapped in a flour tortilla.
Before rushing out the door to get your burger fix, you should know that Toro is open only from 5PM through 10PM Tuesday through Saturday. Much as you’d love to have one of Toro’s fabulous burgers for lunch, you’ll appreciate the reason for the restaurant’s limited hours. Not only does Chef Ryan prepare everything to order, he spends a lot of time sourcing fresh ingredients, grinding the beef, creating sauces and even curing and smoking the restaurant’s bacon and pastrami. That pastrami is cured for 18 days then smoked for another 12 to 16 hours. The bacon undergoes a similar meticulous hands-on curing and smoking process. These are the difference-makers, the reasons burgerphiles will return often.
The menu is another reason. To get you started, you can select from one of six appetizers, three soft tacos (ground beef, adobado chicken, blackened tilapia) or four salads. Be cautioned that the appetizers are generously portioned and you’ll want lots of room for those burgers. There are twelve highly imaginative burgers on the menu as well as a build-your-own-burger option with seemingly unlimited options considering you can choose your meat, cheese (seven choices), veggies (eight choices) and sauces (eleven choices). It’s a mad burger scientist’s dream! There are three entrees on the menu: catfish dinner, New Mexico hot chicken and beef ribs. There are also ten sandwich options, each intriguing. All sandwiches include your choice of side. If you’re not already planning a visit, I haven’t done my job well. If the burgers are any indication, you should rush right over!
18 November 2016: When we ordered our appetizers we had no idea how generously portioned they’d be. An order of chile cheese fries rewarded us with a mountain of house-cut fries and a generous sprinkling of New Mexico green chile with a cheese blend dousing and Ranch dressing on the side. The green chile has a pleasant piquancy–enough heat for me to notice and for my Kim to call it “hot.” Anytime you can find house-cut fries, you should jump on them. Infinitely better than out-of-a-bag fries, these golden planks of salty deliciousness are terrific repositories for cheese and green chile.
18 November 2016: Our server, the ambassadorial and indefatigable James recommended the fried pickles, one of the more popular appetizers on the menu. Served with a ramekin of Ranch dressing (ask for one with blue cheese, too) is a pile of thinly sliced, lightly breaded dill pickles which would really purse your lips were it not for the breading. In our eight years down South (on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), we never received such a generous portion of fried pickles as we did during our inaugural visit to Toro Burger. We wound up taking half of them home and found them as delightful the next day as we did when they first graced our table.
18 November 2016: Until just before we placed our order, I fully intended to order what Mary Ann’s hubby had enjoyed so much–the Toro burger (Hatch green chile, house made bacon, cheese and chipotle aoli), but perusing a full-sized menu instead of one online gave us new perspective on just how inventive Toro’s burgers are. If, like me, you enjoy flavor combinations that pair disparate (sweet and savory, tangy and piquant, etc.) taste profiles, you’ll love the Mo’ Better Burger (grilled pineapple jam, house-made bacon and Sriracha aioli) which teases and tantalizes every one of your ten-thousand taste buds. While the combination of pineapples and bacon has long been exploited on pizza, we found it to be tailor-made for burgers, too. The bacon has a wonderful smokiness paired with a sweet-peppery element that renders it positively addictive. One taste of the pineapple jam and your imagination will conjure up all the different ways you can enjoy it.
18 November 2016: My Kim’s choice was a slightly modified Jack and Dianne (which she ordered not because she likes the John Mellencamp song by that name) which comes standard with sauteed garlic mushrooms and Jack cheese. Kim asked that the Jack cheese be eighty-sixed and substituted grilled onions instead. The last trade that good was when the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta for a song and dance. There’s something almost magical about earthy garlic-infused mushrooms paired with sweet, almost caramelized onions. Lest I forget, the beef is of superior caliber, a delicious, nicely seasoned patty of about six-ounces. Burgers at Toro are so good you can dispense with mustard and ketchup.
19 November 2016: So impressed were we after our inaugural visit that we couldn’t wait to return. It took us only one day to make like McArthur. To avoid marital strife, we flipped a coin to determine which of us would order the pastrami sandwich (Kim wins so many coin tosses she must have a two-headed coin). Called the Travis Pastrami, the sandwich is constructed on grilled light rye bread smeared with hot mustard and piled generously with the housemade pastrami about which James, our affable guide had waxed poetic. The sandwich comes standard with sauerkraut, but Kim opted to have it on the side. As with all great pastrami, this one’s got plenty of marbling. That’s where so much of the flavor comes from. Well, that a meticulous, painstakingly monitored brining, curing, smoking process. It’s obvious Chef Ryan knows what he’s doing. Only at Joe Rodriguez’s California Pastrami will you find pastrami this good.
19 November 2016: Our inaugural visit taught us to be more judicious about ordering appetizers. Instead of, for example, ordering an overly generous platter of chile cheese fries and risk being near-full when entrees arrive, opt for the pulled pork sliders (three slow-cooked pulled pork sliders with a red chile BBQ sauce and house slaw). Tender tendrils of pork nestled between pillowy soft bread rolls is just the beginning. The red chile BBQ sauce is more tangy than it is piquant, but it infuses the pork with a delightful liveliness. Ditto for the coleslaw which imparts tangy, creamy notes. There’s only one thing wrong with these sliders–you’ll want at least two (or eight) more.
19 November 2016: Having lost the coin flip and thus the opportunity to order the pastrami sandwich didn’t make me a Miss Congeniality. There are just too many terrific options on the menu, each one a winner. James recommended the catfish dinner (buttermilk soaked fried catfish fingers tossed in a spicy cornmeal dredge and served with house-cut fries, slaw and a roasted corn tartar sauce). Who would have thought Rio Rancho would become my go-to destination for catfish–first at K’Lynn’s Cuisine and now at Toro Burger? The two planks of catfish placed gently atop a haystack-sized pile of French fries are terrific–light, flaky and delicate with a bit of personality courtesy of a spice blend. Dip the catfish into the roasted corn tartar and the flavor profile changes altogether. This is the tartar sauce for those of us who don’t like tartar sauce courtesy of sweet corn niblets that serve as a nice foil to other savory elements.
18 November 2016: Even among the most creative and experienced chefs, desserts are often a challenge, one usually left to an assistant or pastry chef. Chef Ryan may be just as adept at desserts as he is with savory elements. As with everything that comes out of his kitchen, there’s plenty of imagination in every dish. There’s also quite a bit of magic. Our introduction to his prowess with postprandial aspects of a meal was with a crustless cheesecake. Well, there is a crust, but it’s not Graham crackers or anything of the like. This “crust” is comprised of thinly sliced red apples atop of which rests a molded round cheesecake topped with a green chile compote punctuated by more thin apple slices. The green chile compote has both piquant and sweet elements, a perfect foil for the tangy apples and even sweeter cheesecake. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this masterpiece.
19 November 2016: We weren’t surprised at how much we enjoyed Chef Ryan’s housemade ice cream sandwich. Now, this one does have a Graham cracker crust which sandwiches a layer of chocolate ganache and a thick wedge of chocolate ice cream. The ice cream sandwich arrives at your table in a frozen state. You’ll be advised to let it sit for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment. Would that we had such discipline. No sooner had it arrived at our table than we began to gnaw on it. Our sole complaint about this delightful ice cream treat is how small it is–maybe four inches. It’s not the ice cream sandwich behemoth you’ll find at Rude Boy Cookies, but it’s just as good.
19 November 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, will be happy to hear Toro Burger’s dessert menu includes a bread pudding, perhaps one worthy of inclusion on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame. This particular bread pudding, resplendent with the presence of sweet-tangy peaches and topped with a vanilla icing is reminiscent of peach cobbler, albeit just a bit sweeter. Though some might consider them anachronistic, bread pudding and cobbler are two of my very favorite desserts and for some of the same reasons. What we enjoyed most about Toro’s rendition is the interplay of different flavors to compose a cohesive, absolutely delicious whole. Next time, however, we may ask for the green chile compote instead of the vanilla icing.
If you visited any one of Toro Burger’s predecessors at the Rio Rancho Howard Johnson’s, you likely weren’t very impressed. Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Toro Burger. It’s better…much better. Chef Ryan’s burger creations are not to be missed and you’ll be well taken care of by James, the restaurant’s whirling dervish server whose recommendations you can take to the bank.
1465 Rio Rancho Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chile Cheese Fries, Fried Pickles, Jack and Dianne Burger, Mo’ Better Burger, Housemade Cheesecake with Green Chile Compote, Peach Bread Pudding, Housemade Ice Cream Sandwich, Pulled Pork Sliders, Catfish Dinner, Travis Pastrami, French Fries, Onion Things