Since the mid 1920s, New Yorker magazine has been providing insightful commentary on popular American culture in all its star-spangled idiosyncrasies. One of its most popular features in the 1970s was the “American Journal” written by the inimitable Calvin Trillin who traversed the continent in search of where real people ate. The “Walt Whitman of American eats” chronicled his dining experiences with the same enthusiasm with which he ate the native cuisines most appreciated by locals. Peppering his reviews with humor, he culled a reputation as one of America’s best food writers.
Trillin was adamant that America’s most glorious food was not the culinary fare proffered at the uppity upscale restaurants he cynically referred to generically as “La Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine.” Eschewing the trendy restaurants where “everything is served on a bed of something else,” he instead preferred the simplicity and authenticity of local specialties–posole in Santa Fe, boudin in Louisiana, pumpernickel bagels in New York City and especially barbecue in Kansas City.
Kansas City was also home to Trillin’s favorite burger, a declaration he made in 1970 in Life magazine about Winstead’s, a burger emporium he said served the best hamburgers in the world. A Kansas City native, he also pronounced that “anybody who doesn’t think the best hamburger in the world is in his hometown is a sissy.” To its detractors, perhaps this is one explanation for Lota Burger’s popularity.
There’s no way you can ever call someone a sissy who smokes all his own meat and makes his own rubs and sauces, but Ryan Scott affirms that he’s not a sissy by Trillin’s criteria in declaring the hamburgers at the Village Grill in his hometown of Moriarty “the best I have ever had–and yes I have eaten at Bobcat Bite and other better known places.” Better than Bobcat Bite! I have friends who would call that audacious claim “fighting words.”
When I asked Ryan what made these burgers so special, he informed me that they are “hand-pounded and hand-formed daily. There is a “toppings” bar and all the toppings are made fresh daily. The owner is named Judy and she looks and cooks like your grandmother, and she consistently makes high quality burgers. It’s simple food cooked the best way she knows how. I’ve had nearly everything on the menu but the burgers shine the brightest.“
The Village Grill sits on historic Route 66, the Mother Road which parallels I-40 through Moriarty, a ranch and farm community which celebrates America’s highway. While the city has its share of the spangled neon signage so prevalent on Route 66, the Village Grill is almost entirely antithetical of the inviting luminescence which characterized the Mother Road. That doesn’t mean the Village Grill looks out-of-place. In fact, it looks as if it’s been there since the halcyon days of Route 66, albeit with a couple of facelifts.
The Village Grill opened on April 5, 2001 in an edifice which previously housed Chubby’s Restaurant which was built in 1988, so it’s a relatively new restaurant by Route 66 standards. Though a novitiate in terms of chronology, the restaurant embodies the spirit of restaurants on Route 66 which characteristically served great food to weary travelers.
Judy McDonald is the Village Grill’s third owner, who does indeed look and cook like a grandmother (albeit a very young and spry grandmother). She’s got that thick accent–make that drawl–a lot of New Mexicans east of Albuquerque pull off so well. That would be people like New Mexico state attorney general Gary King whom we met at the restaurant during our inaugural visit. Gary, like his father, former governor Bruce King and like our hostess Judy, has an endearing homespun charm and easy manner that gives one pause to ponder if life 37 miles east of the Big I inspires such affability.
The restaurant is, as Ryan Scott described it, a proverbial “hole in the wall.” From the outside, the flax-colored structure has a beckoning feel to it. Inside the most prominent color is a powder blue shade which covers most of the restaurant’s walls. Festooned on those walls are framed photographs taken by Judy’s husband as well as glossy photographs of Hollywood luminaries. The former are the type of photographs us amateurs wish we had the imagination and talent to capture.
Literally the first thing you see as you walk in is a counter separated by a soft-drink dispensing apparatus into “pick up” and “order” sections. Above the counter is the menu, not a long menu by most restaurant standards, but a menu that packs them in. A fellow diner and Moriarty resident told us the Village Grill is the most popular place in town Monday through Friday with lines out the door.
What the locals order most are burgers, These are big burgers in which the beef extends beyond the buns. It’s the type of beef that makes for the best burgers–hand-formed and nicely seasoned. The buns are lightly toasted and the fixings bar is generous: two types of dill pickles, red and white onion, tomato, ketchup, mustard, pepperonici and more. At the Village Grill you can truly have your burger your way.
My way is a green chile cheeseburger, the most popular sandwich in the Land of Enchantment. Melted Cheddar cheese drapes over the beef and is covered by roasted green and red chile chopped finely. Though the green chile has a nice flavor, it lacks the piquancy appreciated by food masochists like me who believe pain is a flavor. Still, it’s easy to understand Ryan’s hometown pride in this excellent green chile cheeseburger.
A standard hamburger (sans cheese and green chile) is a better way to gauge how good the beef is–and how good a burger can be. A little mustard, white onions and ketchup and you’ve got burger Nirvana.
All American accompaniment for the burgers can be found in the form of onion rings, French fries, potato salad and coleslaw. The coleslaw is sweet and light on the salad cream which allows the crisp cabbage to shine. The onion rings are crisp and sweet.
The Village Grill has a hamburger locals undoubtedly consider the very best in the world. Moriarty has no place in it for sissies.
The Village Grill
136 Route 66 E
Moriarty, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Hamburger