In 2014, Epicurious compiled a list of crimes against burgers: Hockey-puck patties, pressing down with a spatula, over-flipping, unmelted cheese and hard-as-a-rock buns. For decades most burger aficionados followed these commandments as if their souls depended on them. We cringed and bristled when burger flippers smashed down burger patties on a grill. “There goes all the juices” we bemoaned. “Here comes another dry as a New Mexico dust devil burger” we lamented. Of all the felonious assaults against our beloved burger, pressing down the spatula was the most grievous, a crime that should be punishable by years of hard labor.
Then in the 1970s a Kentucky restaurateur “invented” something we know today as a “smash burger.” To hasten the preparation time and sate the throngs queued up to be fed, he placed a large bean can atop the beef patties. By “smashing” the burger with a heavy object, he discovered the meat had greater contact with the griddle. Not only did this lead to a better flavor, the resultant beef patties developed a “crust” that sealed in juices. Smash burgers are super model thin compared to thick quarter- or half-pound beefy behemoths. The thinner burger has a much darker, crispier exterior.
The smash burger trend is a nationwide phenomena. Even the laggardly Land of Enchantment (which is usually late to the party when it comes to culinary trends) has embraced the thin burger movement. My friend Bill Resnik, an early adopter in technology and the culinary arts) even bought a Blackstone griddle to prepare better smash burgers. Like me, he experienced righteous indignation every time he saw a burger’s juices flow off the griddle as some fry cook smashed it down menacingly with a spatula. Both Bill and I have seen the light. We love smash burgers, but they’ve got to be done the right way…and by the way, some restaurants are chintzy with their beef patties, serving baloney slice thick patties. Thin beef patties alone do not a smash burger make.
As with all burgers of quality, a smash burger must have the optimum balance of meat to bun to condiments. Not having found THE world class smash burger we craved in the Duke City (save for The Shop’s amazing burger), Bill suggested we visit Belen, home of Big Mike’s Burgers & More. Big Mike’s has an impressive pedigree and is known for award-winning burgers. Moreover, Big Mike’s is reputed to have mastered the smash burger. Sure Belen is about 30 miles from Albuquerque, but Bill and I often drive great distances to provide community service.
Big Mike’s is pretty easy to find. If you’re driving south from Albuquerque, take the first Belen exit (Highway 314). In about two and a half miles, you’ll espy Big Mike’s on your right. From the outside Big Mike’s bears a resemblance to LotaBurger, but step inside and it’s nothing like Lotaburger. Two- and four-top seating spaced in personal space proximity is positioned throughout. Laminate flooring is clean and attractive. You’ll place your order at a counter where menus can be perused. We got to Big Mike’s at just past noon and had to wait about ten minutes for a seat.
On the counter where you place your order, you’ll see several accolades the restaurant has earned over the years. Probably the most impressive is a trophy depicting a burger topped by a single green chile. It signifies Big Mike’s 2022 winning the People’s Choice award during the green chile cheeseburger challenge at the New Mexico State Fair. A framed certificate from the Valencia County News Bulletin indicates Big Mike’s had the county’s very best green chile cheeseburger in 2022. Before telling you about the burger, let me point out the unique creature on one wall. It’s a horny cow’s skull. Bill and I discussed with another table whether that skull represented a Belenosauraus or a former mayor of Belen.
The menu lets you know up front that Big Mike’s is not a fast food burger joint, that all burgers are prepared to order. We found out that the grill was being manned by Big Mike himself. Big Mike, by the way, is Mike Montaño. True to his sobriquet, he’s a pretty big guy who looks as if he could play on the UNM Lobos offensive line. Montaño’s dad launched the restaurant in 2011. Montaño assumed the helm in 2019, working his way up from dishwasher to cook then prep. He’s got burger preparation down pat. Burger patties are hand-formed and pressed then cooked to order. Big Mike’s uses a special seasoning blend mixed on the premises. Even the chile is seasoned the Big Mike way.
The New Mexico State Fair’s “People Choice” award-winning burger is a taco burger, one quarter-pound patty in two hard-shelled taco shells. It’s available “X-Mas” style or with mushrooms and Swiss. Though other burgers on the menu interested me far more, my altruism has no bounds so in the interest of community service, I ordered the taco burger. As depicted below, the burger patty has that dark, crispy crust characteristic of smash burgers. Chile is covered by a molten blanket of melted cheese. Lettuce and tomato are served on the side along with a small order of seasoned French fries. As taco burgers go, this is a good one though Bill’s burger looked even better. So did the sopaipilla burger delivered to another table.
Bill ordered the “Lil Chris,” made with two quarter-pound patties, green chile, lettuce, onions, pickles and mustard. There’s nothing little about the Lil Chris, a double-decker behemoth that will challenge any trencherman to finish. Bill noted the perfect crust, joking that the Lil Chris was remarkably similar to the smash burger he made at home on his Blackstone. Bill’s an accomplished cook so there’s no braggadocio in his claim. He lavished other words of praise on the burger, perhaps no greater tribute than declaring he’d drive to Belen again to have another. We would both have loved our burgers even more had the chile been more piquant. In part because of the generosity of other condiments, the chile was barely discernible.
Big Mike’s menu isn’t solely dedicated to award-winning burgers though two pages are dedicated to America’s favorite meal. New Mexicans will appreciate that Big Mike serves burgers on sopaipillas, tortillas, taco shells and brioche buns. The menu includes a number of sandwiches, including an intriguing XL Philly cheesesteak. New Mexican favorites on the menu include quesadillas, tacos and build-your-own burritos. You can also have green chile stew or a bowl of beans with red or green chile. Among the restaurant’s specialties is a Philly Burrito.
While I often eschew ground beef tacos, Bill loves them. We both thoroughly enjoyed Big Mike’s ground beef tacos. If a crimes against tacos list exists, one of the most egregious of crimes has got to be reusing ground beef. More restaurants than you know actually do this. Big Mike’s ground beef is obviously fresh, not a day old or reused. Another crime against tacos would be covering the beef in lettuce and tomatoes. Big Mike’s serves the on the side along with a little tub of salsa. A blend of shredded yellow and white Cheddar cheese tops the tacos. If you love ground beef tacos, these might be the very best you’ll find.
Big Mike’s Burgers & More isn’t on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, but that’s only because the Trail hasn’t been updated since 2011. This is a purveyor of outstanding smash burgers and it should be on YOUR trail.
Big Mike’s Burgers & More
19388 Highway 314
Belen, New Mexico
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Lil Chris Burger, Taco Burger, Ground Beef Tacos