19 June 2016: Fathers may get the short end of the stick when it comes to cards (card companies sell 133 million Mother’s Day cards annually, 40 million more than for Father’s Day), but when it comes to the annual Father’s Day dining ritual, dad’s make up for it. That’s how it seemed when I walked into Laguna Burger and found the little restaurant overflowing with families feting their fathers. What a great choice! In each of the last two years Laguna Burger has been the most frequently visited post on Gil’s Thrilling… If most of the visitors to the review actually also visit the restaurant, that’s tens of thousands of visitors to Laguna Burger. On Father’s Day 2016, it seemed most of the fathers were there.
The history of New Mexico is fraught with tales of hardship and peril. Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as early settlers found out when, amidst the ravages of climatic extremes, they traversed austere terrain in search of wealth and a better life. There were no interstate highways nor high-speed motorized conveyances to ferry them across the barren and cruel desert. There were no hotels and motels in which they could rest their weary bones nor restaurants to quell the pangs of hunger and thirst which parched their throats.
The storied trails that brought settlers and traders to New Mexico, remnants of which have mostly disappeared over time, were scarcely more than ruts carved into the earth by wagons, horses and oxen. History has glorified those trails–the Santa Fe, Butterfield and Camino Real among them–but the truth of their harshness is far from glamorous. One especially treacherous and dry section of El Camino Real was so brutal, it was designated by the Spanish conquistadores as the Jornada del Muerto, Spanish for “route of the dead man.”
The advent of the railroad system heralded the beginning of the end of the trail systems and made travel to and from New Mexico a more pleasant, far less hazardous adventure. Today when people associate trails with New Mexico, it’s usually not with trepidation, but with respect and admiration. Instead of such ominous names as Jornada Del Muerto, New Mexico’s trails are now bestowed such inviting sobriquets as The Turquoise Trail. Instead of peril and woe, New Mexico’s trails are scenic and beautiful, providing a vast array of fun and recreational activities.
In 2009, the word “trail” began to take on a new connotation. Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author and the New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary liaison, conceptualized a “culinary trail” concept designed to capitalized on the widespread interest–both by locals and tourists–on the Land of Enchantment’s incomparable cuisine. The inaugural culinary trail was the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a celebration of New Mexico’s iconic, some say unofficial and favorite, state food.
More than 8,000 people–residents, visitors, critics and restaurateurs–cast their ballots for their favorite green chile cheeseburgers. When the ballots were tallied, the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail listed four dozen purveyors of green chile cheeseburgers from among the 200 or so nominated. The Trail included burger bastions from Abiquiu to Zuni and from all four corners of the state. Those burgers are prepared in restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and even bowling alleys.
One of green chile cheeseburger restaurants garnering the most votes was a superette (convenience store) with the intriguing name “Home of The Laguna Burger” (since shortened to “Laguna Burger.”) Driving on I40 past the Pueblo of Laguna, I had seen signage for the burger, but dismissed it as just another promotion for the Pueblo’s popular casino. My mistake!
The Laguna Burger is simply one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico! Cooked to order from 100 percent, never frozen ground beef (an 80/20 blend), it is a half-pound of pure deliciousness. Today, there are three Homes of the Laguna Burger, the most recent addition strategically positioned directly across I40 from the Route 66 Casino. Interestingly, it has an Albuquerque address (14311 Central Avenue). As with its siblings, it is located within the confines of a superette. Walk past the checkout counters and their temptations and you’ll find a diner-like space dedicated to the Laguna burger and several other menu items.
Though the Laguna Burger is tiny (about eight bar stools and a small dining room for seating), the aromas of beef on a flattop grill waft throughout the large superette like an olfactory siren’s call. After perusing the menu–which offers both lunch and dinner–and placing your order, find a seat. The best seat in the house is probably on one of the bar stools where you can watch the green chile cheeseburger being lovingly prepared for you.
Yes, lovingly! The shirts worn by the staff are emblazoned with the slogan, “Is it the beef or is it the love?”. When Cheromiah Marshall (Google him) was manning the grill, you can be assured it was equal parts of both. Cheromiah was as engaging and funny as any counter man in New Mexico. He took great pride in the Laguna Burger, answering my questions with an impish grin–first giving me a comedic response then the actual answer. Where does Laguna Burger get its beef? From my uncle’s cows. Where do you get your green chile? From my uncle’s farm if the cows don’t eat it. It is great fun.
Cheromiah beamed with pride in telling me the Laguna Burger came in second at Governor Richardson’s inaugural green chile cheeseburger challenge and that it received more votes than any other purveyor of green chile cheeseburgers on the Trail. When I informed him the restaurant which won the Governor’s challenge is now closed, he said, “now we’re the best.” That claim is hard to dispute. The Laguna Burger is outstanding!
As Cheromiah prepared my burger, another staffer shaped ground beef into rounded balls, weighing them to ensure each was exactly eight ounces (that’s half a pound, twice the beef of McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder). Each burger is prepared to order; the Laguna Burger is not fast food. At strategic intervals in the grilling process, the green chile (Bueno brand) is placed on the grill where it sizzles and spits as in protest. The cheese is added later to ensure just the right level of meltedness. The Laguna Burger is adorned with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mustard on a sesame seed bun.
This is a perfectly seasoned burger. The beef patty is juicy and delicious at about medium-well. The vegetables are fresh–crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, lip pursing pickles, red onions. The green chile, at least the batch I’ve had in three visits, was piquant enough to get my attention. It’s delicious through and through, so good you’ll want another, but so large you might not have the room. That’s especially true if you also order the fresh-cut, never frozen French fries. The fries, shades of gold and brown, are neither too flaccid nor too stiff. They’re fries the way they should be made.
The Laguna Burger has a surprisingly large menu for operating in such a small space. The menu includes foot long hot dogs and chili cheese dogs, corn dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches (on Texas toast), Frito pies, chicken tenders, onion rings, taquitos with salsa and more, but it would be very hard to pass up the Laguna Burger.
Lest you think my opinion of the 66 Pit Stop: Home of the Laguna Burger is mine alone, read the glowing review from Hannah and Edward, Albuquerque’s podcasters nonpareil. When Andrea Feucht was asked by The Guardian of London to list the top ten restaurants and cafes in Albuquerque, she listed the 66 Pit Stop, Home of the Laguna Burger as one of those ten. By any standards, this diminutive purveyor of green chile cheeseburgers is a ten.
Note: Even though the Home of the Laguna Burger at the 66 Pit Stop has an Albuquerque address (14311 Central Avenue, N.W.), you won’t find it anywhere within the city’s urban sprawl. To get there you’ll want to drive west on I-40 and take exit 114. It’s directly across I-40 from the Route 66 Casino.
66 Pit Stop
14311 Central Avenue, NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 19 June 2016
1st VISIT: 15 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Frito Pie