As much a social commentary as a realist novel, Grapes of Wrath by author John Steinbeck immortalized Route 66 as “The Mother Road” and “the road to flight.” The latter and lesser known sobriquet recalls the epic odyssey of nearly a quarter of a million people migrating to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl. Route 66 not only succored Americans, it symbolized a renewed spirit of optimism and beginning anew just as the nation was coming off the Great Depression and World War I. The 2,448 mile stretch of asphalt which traversed eight states connected remote and sparsely-populated regions with Chicago and Los Angeles, two of America’s most vital economic engines. “The Main Street of America” also gave Americans a sense of adventure on the open road, introducing them to parts of the country theretofore found only in books. That’s especially true about the “wild west” of which New Mexico was a part.
While most of us know that Route 66’s route through New Mexico meandered roughly east to west across the central part of the state, until 1937, Route 66 actually took a much lengthier detour. Its initial alignment ferried motorists northward from Santa Rosa to Santa Fe before heading south where it bisected Albuquerque then continuing to Los Lunas before a westward trek to Laguna. In anticipation of the “straightening” of Route 66, New York transplant Daniel Murphy opened El Vado Auto Court Motel in 1937 on Central Avenue between the Rio Grande and Old Town. He chose the name “Vado” which translates from Spanish to “ford” because of its location near an old ford that crossed the Rio Grande where Bridge Street lies today.
Constructed in the Spanish Pueblo Revival style, El Vado was a welcome respite for sojourners eager to experience the Old West. Thanks to a design evocative of Native American Pueblos and a flashy neon sign depicting a Native American maiden sporting a colorful headdress, it did indeed reinforce widely held Old West stereotypes. The motel was comprised of 32 units facing a parking courtyard with covered carports shielding modern conveyances from the searing sun. El Vado would serve sojourners for nearly eight decades before closing in 2005, twelve years after having been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
An icon of the halcyon days of Route 66, El Vado seemed destined to be razed and replaced by luxury townhouses. A protracted fight to save the property ensued before the city’s Metropolitan Development Agency purchased the blighted property in 2006 and began searching for a public-private partner to redevelop the site as a mixed-use complex. Redevelopment ultimately cost more than eighteen million, including three million in investments by the city. While honoring the culture, spirit and history of Route 66 were important considerations, the revitalization also married contemporary lifestyles with tradition. El Vado reopened in July, 2018.
At its heart and essence El Vado remains a motel, albeit an amenity-rich 22-room boutique model with conveniences of which motorists could not have conceived in 1937. Most rooms are standard king bedrooms replete with custom-made furniture. Local art festoons the walls and original vigas hang overhead. Those include an event center, an amphitheater venue for concerts, outdoor lounge area, a tap room showcasing local brews and food pods in which local food vendors offer culinary diversity and deliciousness. The food pods are Lilliputian in size, ranging from 191 square feet to 495 square feet. Among the tenants are Zendo Coffee, Happy Chickenzz, Sandia Crust Pizza Co, Buen Provecho (Costa Rican cuisine anyone?), Rollin’ On In and Bosque Burger.
Stepping into the complex, especially if you’re not necessarily in the mood for any specific type of food, you might felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store. No matter which purveyor you choose for your inaugural foray, opportunities abound for further culinary adventures. Such was my dilemma. If my inaugural experience is any indication, you may actually end up postponing future visits to the other pods until you’ve sampled more from the your chosen eatery’s featured fare. That’s one delicious dilemma you’ll happily wade through. Designers knew what they were doing when they placed so much deliciousness in such close proximity.
After perusing the menu hanging from a wall sconce just outside the restaurant’s entrance, my decision was made easier. My inaugural El Vado visit would be to Bosque Burger, no relation to the long defunct Bosque Bull, a popular burger joint which shuttered its doors in 2004. Bosque Burger’s roots were actually as a mobile food kitchen (that’s food truck to you, Bob) owned and operated by Culinary Institute of America (the real CIA) graduate Greg Ritt. During the five years The Lunch Box served Duke City diners, it earned readers choices awards from the Albuquerque Journal in 2014 and 2015 and was widely regarded as one of the very best mobile food kitchens in the city. Greg has the credentials (nearly forty years cooking all across the fruited plain), talent and drive to succeed in a competitive brick-and-mortar restaurant market.
10 August 2018: He also has a great secret weapon in Allison, as effervescent and friendly a hostess as you’ll find in Albuquerque. Sensing my “first timer’s” dilemma of not knowing what to order, she helped me navigate the menu with an ambassadorial enthusiasm that assured me everything on that menu would be fabulous. The enticing aroma of jambalaya wafting toward my eager nostrils and making my mouth water validated her recommendations (alas, it was being prepared for evening guests). Ultimately, I assured her and Greg that I would enjoy absolutely everything on the menu and asked them to make the decision for me. Solomon could not have made a better choice. In a year in which I’ve had several outstanding burgers, Bosque Burger’s The Cubano may well be (make that is) the very best.
If you’re thinking “what’s so special about a Cubano. Aren’t they all the same?” you’re in for a very special taste experience. This Cubano is a hybrid burger and sandwich, elevating the best elements of each and removing those components (hard-crusted pressed panini that scrapes the roof of your mouth) that detract from Cubano greatness. Two slices of lightly toasted buttered bread serve as a canvas for a masterpiece of ingredients: a quarter-pound Angus beef patty, thinly sliced smoked pork loin, Black Forest ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. Greg soaks the pork loin overnight in a Dr. Pepper and coffee marinade before roasting and smoking it. He procures the Black Forest ham from a quality source and instead of the conventional yellow mustard, he uses a tangy Dijon. These difference-makers place The Cubano in rarefied air as one of the best burgers in Albuquerque. It is served with an addictive coleslaw, pickle slice and slice of honeydew melon.
The menu lists some ten burgers and sandwiches, each as alluring as is brethren. Allison talked up two of her favorites, the BBQ Bacon Mac & Cheese (Angus chuck patty with panko mac and cheese cake, applewood bacon and a honey Jack Daniels BBQ sauce) and the Buffalo Bacon Blue (char-grilled Angus patty, applewood bacon, spicy Buffalo sauce, crumbled blue cheese, mixed greens and tomato). If you’re not making plans to visit Bosque Burger after reading that, you should be. I can easily envision ten visits, one for each burger or sandwich…and that’s not counting future visits to enjoy Greg’s daily specials (such as the aforementioned jambalaya).
19 August 2018: Meat and bun are such worthy “accomplices” for bringing out the best in other ingredients that they surpass even Reese’s peanut butter cups as vehicles for great tastes that taste great together. As a case in point, consider Bosque Burger’s fabulous Buffalo Bacon Blue (char-grilled Angus patty, applewood smoked bacon, spicy Buffalo sauce, crumbled blue cheese, mixed greens and tomato on a grilled bun). By any definition that’s one loaded burger replete in fabulous ingredients. We’re not talking wimpy ingredients here either. The Day-Glo colored Buffalo sauce, a cayenne and butter-based sauce, lends a pleasant piquancy while a generous amount of blue cheese, that fabulous fetid fromage, imparts a terrific sharpness. Then there’s the applewood smoked bacon, crispy with a smoky-sweet deliciousness. Of course you know you’re from New Mexico when you wonder how this masterpiece would taste with green chile.
19 August 2018: My Kim isn’t quite as passionate about burgers as her husband, but she does love a good quesadilla. She didn’t even study the burger menu after espying the specials board outside the front door. One of the two Sunday specials was a grilled steakadilla (thin-sliced grilled steak, sauteed peppers and onions and pepperjack cheese in a jumbo flour tortilla), an obvious portmanteau. As quesadillas go, this one doesn’t have a mishmash of ingredients, but those it does have go very well together. The grilled flour tortilla is folded in half then sliced into three triangular wedges stuffed with goodness. In some respects, this steakadilla was very much reminiscent of fajitas, even onto the accompanying sour cream.
19 August 2018: Sometimes an aroma is like a siren’s call wafting toward eagerly awaiting nostrils. A great aroma will often preface a great dish. It teases and tantalizes, making your mouth water. Such was the case during my inaugural visit to Bosque Burger when the alluring aroma of jambalaya on the stove brought back so many wonderful memories of our time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, that jambalaya wouldn’t be ready until the dinner hour. So, when it was one of two featured specials during my second visit, I would have fought legendary KRQE sports director Van Tate for a bowl of it as we were standing in line waiting to place our order. Thankfully for me (Van looks like he can still play tight end for the Lobos), there was enough jambalaya for both Van and me and we both loved it. Replete with shrimp, Andouille sausage, chicken and of course, the Cajun Holy Trinity of celery, onion and bell pepper along with other personality-packed ingredients on a bed of rice, it was very much like the jambalaya we enjoyed for eight years in New Orleans and throughout Cajun country. Greg confirmed that the jambalaya has been so popular, he’ll probably add it to the regular menu.
23 August 2018: In the third of seemingly six or seven hundred Rocky movies, America’s favorite feel good story Rocky Balboa fought a seven-foot behemoth in an exhibition match. Rocky’s opponent was Thunderlips, a chiseled, charismatic and bigger-than-life professional wrestler who grabbed the mike before the match and proclaimed “To all my love slaves out there: Thunderlips is here. In the flesh, baby. The ultimate male versus… the ultimate meatball. Ha, ha, ha.” I’ve often contemplated not the ultimate meatball, but the ultimate meatball sandwich. There have been very few and very far between meatball sandwiches which approach the level of ultimate.
One of the very best to cross my lips is not a Thunderlips-sized submarine sandwich, but a trio of meatball sliders from Bosque Burger. The sliders were the special of the day during my third visit. As during my inaugural visit, I asked Greg to tell me what to order. He recommended the meatball slider trio, a favorite from The Lunchbox days. Unlike some “sliders” which can be devoured in three or four bites, these meatball sliders are jam-packed with hand-rolled beef meatballs in a spicy marinara sauce with Provolone on toasted buns. Three of them will sate even a large appetite. The spicy marinara sauce is special. It’s not green chile piquant, but has a very pleasing heat that permeates the moist, tender meatballs. The toasted buns are not only formidable enough to hold up against the generosity of the meatballs, they’re a tasty exemplar of the staff of life.
23 August 2018: Worthy accompaniment to any burger or sandwich on the menu is the Truffle Oil Parm Tots. These tots are hand-rolled steroidal version of tater tots from a bag. Very few restaurants make their own and for having the talent and audacity to do so, Greg deserves major kudos. So do the tots, seven fritter-shaped, golden-hued beauties sprinkled with truffle oil and topped generously with shredded Parmesan. My only regret is in having the small size order instead of the large size. The more the better when it comes to these terrific tots.
The Americana-inspiring nostalgia of El Vado and unique creations at Bosque Burger should make this mixed-use complex a success story well into the 21st century and beyond.
2500 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2018
1st VISIT: 10 August 2018
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: The Cubano, Buffalo Bacon Blue, Grilled Steakadilla, Jambalaya, Meatball Slider Trio, Truffle Oil Parm Tots