Shortly after the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman had the occasion to conduct an inspection trip of frontier outposts in the southwest. He wasn’t impressed by what he saw in New Mexico, writing in a report that “We should have another war with Mexico and force them to take the Territory (New Mexico) back!”
As an unabashedly proud native New Mexican, it’s hard for me to comprehend that anyone couldn’t see the incomparable beauty of the Land of Enchantment which to me is obvious everywhere I turn. Were I able to go back to General Sherman’s time, there are so many sights I would like to show him that would certainly change his unflattering perception. Near the top of that list is New Mexico’s Route 4, the magnificent two-lane highway which forms the main artery of the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway.
Route 4 follows the braided, narrow path of the murky Jemez River which slices through lush wilderness, storied Spanish and Native American pueblos and colossal canyons reaching to the clear, cobalt skies. The canyon walls are stratified in deep earthy hues while the color of the river changes from chocolate brown to a brilliant red found only in nature.
Route 4 bisects the resort town of Jemez Springs which in 1995 was selected by the National Civic League as an All American City in recognition of its citizens’ cooperative efforts to make their lives a higher quality. Cloistered within a verdant tree shaded valley dwarfed by towering canyon walls lie art galleries, restaurants and multiple lodgings opportunities, including several cozy bed and breakfasts. Formerly known as Hot Springs, the village is renown for the salubrious qualities of the springs for which it was named. The bubbling, sulfur-laden waters are said to have restorative properties.
Though humans have probably inhabited the Jemez Valley since 2500 B.C., recorded history of the area began when the Spaniards arrived in the area in 1540. From then on, Jemez Springs has had an exciting and storied history steeped in sheep wars; disreputable vigilantes, desperadoes and outlaws and wild gaming enterprises.
In 1912, Moses Abousleman, a Lebanese immigrant, built a general store that would eventually become the Los Ojos Restaurant and Bar. Los Ojos (the springs) retains the appearance of the old western saloon it is, both from its faded adobe facade and its interior which celebrates trophy hunting of local wildlife. A painting on the west wall depicts cowboys standing around a bar, a site duplicated on a daily basis though today’s cowboys generally have more horsepower at their disposal than their old western counterparts.
Los Ojos has become a very popular biker bar, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to belly up to the bar next to a brainiac from the Los Alamos scientific community or a mover-shaker from Santa Fe. The barstools around the wooden bar were carved by chainsaw out of logs harvested from the surrounding national forest, but any splinter remnants have long been smoothed down by decades of denim and leather chaps.
In its 2007 edition of the “Best Bars in America,” Esquire magazine listed Los Ojos among the three top New Mexico lairs of libation. Though I don’t imbibe adult beverages, it’s easy to understand why it would be so highly regarded. In a high-testosterone, taxidermist’s dream sort of way, it shouts “fun.” Trophy animals–bobcats, bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, deer and elk–are mounted on the walls where they share space with antique rifles. Wagon wheel lighting and vintage memorabilia abound.
One thing for which Los Ojos has not been well known is as a purveyor of high quality food. It’s a restaurant foodies might visit more as an experiential aside, not necessarily for the excellence of its entrees. That’s not to say there aren’t some things Los Ojos doesn’t do well; in fact, there are several items on the menu which might inspire return visits.
One of those is the Chile Charley, the restaurant’s version of chile cheese fries. Chile Charley is an oversized plate brimming with plump potato wedges smothered with chile, olives, tomatoes and lettuce. It’s not for the tenderfoots (or would that be tenderbellies?) in that the chile actually has some bite to it–or so the tourists say. Most self-respecting New Mexicans will have no problem with the piquancy of this gargantuan appetizer.
A starter alternative for the tenderbellies is the de rigueur plate of fried stuff: onion rings, zucchini and chicken tenders served with ranch dressing. It’s all pretty standard stuff and hardly anything to get excited about. The onion rings are the best of the fried threesome.
Save your excitement for the “Famous Jemez Burger.” It’s a third-pound burger grilled to your exacting specifications and topped with Swiss cheese and black olives under six-inch sesame seed buns. Yes, that’s black olives. It’s not a topping you see very often in the Land of Enchantment. The black olives lend a mild, softy taste to the burger, but neither improves nor detracts from the burger. If you add green chile, you’ll find it’s not a fiery chile nor, for that matter, a particularly memorable chile. The best part of the burger, as it should be, is the beef which is quite good.
A small sandwich menu includes some familiar standards such as a toasted ham and cheese sandwich on a light rye bread. The rye bread is terrific as is the restaurant’s sourdough. As with the burgers, sandwiches are served with Texas sized French fries.
General Sherman would undoubtedly have found the food at Los Ojos a tremendous improvement over the soldiers’ rations prepared at the frontier outposts. He certainly would have been in awe at the splendor and beauty of the Jemez Springs area, maybe enough to recant his negative statement about my beloved Land of Enchantment and turn it into a resounding song of praise.
Los Ojos Restaurant Saloon
Jemez Springs, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Los Ojos Burger with Fries, Ham and Cheese Sandwich on Rye