In 1940, Thomas Wolfe penned You Can’t Go Home Again, a novel whose deeply existential title prompted more than water cooler conversations. It prompted profound philosophical discourse, internal reflection and pangs of nostalgia about better days remembered. Readers pondered if it was true that “you can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood.” Realists concluded the novel’s title meant you can’t return to a place of another time and expect that everything would be exactly the same. Optimists took it a bit further, positing that while some things may change, other things don’t change and some things might actually be better.
Wolfe’s novel came to mind when we first heard a legendary Santa Fe institution had licensed a franchise in Albuquerque. That institution, the Santa Fe Bite had itself once provided evidence that you can go back home. For six decades, that institution–then known as the Bobcat Bite–earned every accolade conceivable before relocating to the Santa Fe Plaza area in 2003. There was a lot of charm in its Lilliputian digs where you sat elbow-to-elbow with other diners who, like you, had waited eagerly for one of the Bobcat Bite’s 26 seats to become available. The intimate space provided the added benefit of being in close proximity to the kitchen where the incomparable aroma of arguably the world’s best green chile cheeseburger pervaded the tiny adobe roadhouse. For many of us, the Bobcat Bite felt like home.
When the Bobcat Bite moved and rechristened itself, we wondered if that sense of hominess that permeated its little lair would be lost. Sure, in its capacious new dwelling, seating would be easier to come by. And with more room in which to operate, the menu could be expanded greatly. And you’d be closer to the Plaza. You can see these as positives, but after our inaugural visit to Santa Fe Bite at the Garrett’s Desert Inn, we quickly discerned what had made the Bobcat Bite feel like home. It was John and Bonnie Eckre.
John, of course, was the indefatigable “burger meister” who hand-fashioned and seasoned all three of the restaurant’s cast-iron grills. He was the “back-of-the-house” presence who painstakingly created a burger so good that when he shared its secrets with Eater, most of us just figured out it was too much work to try duplicating it. Bonnie was the perpetually smiling (with her eyes, too) front-of-the-house face of the restaurant. She is a study in quiet grace and hospitality, the embodiment of kindness.
You can duplicate recipes, maybe even fashion and season cast iron grills, but you can’t duplicate John and Bonnie Eckre…and you can’t duplicate the sense of home and family that the Eckres created over the years. That was the source of my trepidation when I set foot in the Albuquerque franchise in the heart of Nob Hill. Fittingly because of its location, Santa Fe Bite – ABQ celebrates Route 66. Walls are festooned with vintage New Mexico license plates, Coke and Pepsi bric-a-brac and images of muscle cars which once prowled the Mother Road. I was seated near the very front of the restaurant, almost directly beneath a photograph of John and Bonnie Eckre. For me, that was a place of honor.
Not much, if anything, has changed on the menu from what was served at the City Different’s Santa Fe Bite. That means the world-famous burgers, now available in three sizes and even with bacon. The menu also includes New Mexican staples such as tacos, enchiladas and green chile stew. Ribeye and New York strip steaks are also available. A “today only” special offering all burgers discounted at 25% off greeted me on my inaugural visit. Icing on the cake was the option of substituting the side of chips that normally accompany burgers with potato salad, green chile stew, coleslaw or salad. My timing was impeccable!
Actor John Barrymore once quipped, “I’d like to find a stew that will give me heartburn immediately instead of at three o’clock in the morning.” Most New Mexicans believe green chile stew, the elixir of life in these parts, isn’t so much “heart-burning” as it is “heart-warming.” We enjoy it even as much on balmy summer days as we do when wintry air bites our cheeks and stings our fingers. We enjoy it as an appetizer, as a side and as an entree. I discovered it’s also a better pairing with a green chile cheeseburger than fries are. Large chunks of ground pork and neon-green chile are the essence of this incomparable comfort food stew. It’s got just a bit of piquancy, but lots of flavor…and the aroma is magical.
Self-flagellation and public cries of “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea gran culpa” are in order because when my server asked at what degree of “doneness” I wanted my burger, I responded “whatever the chef thinks is best.” At steak restaurants, the very same request almost invariably results in a medium-rare steak or chop–the way I love and expect them. Alas, the burger served to me was medium-well without any of the characteristic pink inside that John Eckre had made an art form. Again, entirely my fault! Other elements of the burger–a potent green chile, a blend of Swiss and American cheese–brought back memories of the Bobcat Bite, but my next burger order will certainly be with more decisiveness.
Country crooner John Denver once compared the feeling of being back home again to being with “a long lost friend.” I have a feeling that in time, Santa Fe Bite – ABQ will also feel like that for many of us.
Santa Fe Bite ABQ
3407 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 23 July 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Green Chile Stew