The year was 1958. The average American wage-owner’s income was $4,650 per year. A Ford automobile cost between $1,967 and $3,929. Milk was $1.01 per gallon. Bread cost 19 cents a loaf and a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti went for 19 cents a can. First class US postage was raised to 4 cents after having held at 3 cents for more than a quarter-century. A gallon of gasoline cost 24 cents.
In 1958, the United States had two-thirds of the world’s 47-million television sets and many of them were tuned in to Gunsmoke, Father Knows Best, Dinah Shore and The Jack Benny Show. France gave the world the disposable Bic pen (which very few people under 20 have even heard of today). Corningware dishes, the hula hoop and stereo records were introduced. To pay for this copious consumerism, American Express introduced the first credit card. The “King” Elvis Prestley was inducted into the United States Army. Prince, Andy Gibb, Madonna and Michael Jackson were born.
In the world of sports, Pele scored two goals to lead Brazil to victory at the 1958 World Cup. Wilt Chamberlain left the University of Kansas to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. Ohio State defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl while the St. Louis Hawks bested the Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship. The New York Yankees claimed their unprecedented eighteenth title. Closer to home, the University of New Mexico Lobo basketball team lost every game they played. With future NFL Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy at the helm, the Lobo football team had a 7-3 record.
In 1958, Belen, New Mexico wasn’t quite the bedroom community for Albuquerque it is today. In fact, it was downright pastoral with many families continuing generations-old farming traditions. Moreover, Belen was the hub of the Santa Fe Railroad, which to this day remains a major employer in the community. Hard-working railroad workers, farmers and ranchers are a hungry lot, a fact that wasn’t lost on local entrepreneur Gil Tabet who in 1958 opened the first of two Circle T Burgers restaurants in Belen.
Tabet was a pioneer of sorts, introducing green chile on his restaurant’s burgers at a time when America’s love affair with the hamburger was just starting to ramp up. Though it might surprise New Mexicans, almost no one in Valencia county was showcasing the area’s fantastic green chile on their burgers until Tabet led the way. Soon other restaurants followed and the rest, as the proverbial “they” say is history. Generations of Belen residents grew up on the Circle T’s food and remain steadfastly loyal today.
The Circle T on Belen’s Main Street has the look and feel of the 50s-style restaurant it is. As you approach the restaurant from the north, you’ll espy a 1960s icon for A&W’s teen burger, a fiberglass statue of a teenager sporting a letterman’s sweater emblazoned with an encircled letter T. The teenager is holding a frosted mug on one hand and a gigantic burger on the other. A large sign confirms you are indeed at Circle T Burgers. A large enclosed patio faces Main Street while an old-fashioned pick-up counter can be found on the restaurant’s southern parking lot, ostensibly for calling in your order in advance and picking it up quickly.
The restaurant’s real treasures are indoors where nostalgia abounds in the form of vintage art and period signage festooning the walls. You’ll want to stroll up and down the aisles and study the collection Gil Tabet amassed over the years. A collection of framed photos back-lit by small LED (light emitting diode) lights is well worth checking out. My favorite is one of Central Avenue (Route 66) in the Duke City looking east near the intersection of Carlisle. It’s amusing to see all that’s changed since the photo was taken, probably in the late 1960s, and what remains the same in our beloved Land of Mañana.
Also on the walls are framed photographs of the I Love Lucy television show so popular in the 1960s. A hooked rug depicting a chile ristra hangs on one wall as do many things of interest, including several framed newspaper articles celebrating the restaurant and the Tabet family. Modernity is no stranger to Circle T, however. Signage suspended from the ceiling directs you to the restaurant’s Wi-Fi hot spot and invites diners to visit the restaurant’s Facebook page. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
The menu hangs above the order and pick-up windows. It, too, is a period piece–essentially two menus flanking a Coca Cola sign. On the left-hand side, the menu lists burgers which range in size from regular (1/6th pound) to jumbo (1/4th pound) to half-pounder. Listed below these burgers are optional additives: chile, cheese, bacon and jalapeno. Extra patties are also available. An extra patty for a half-pounder costs nearly as much ($4.50) as the burger itself ($6.00), but locals tell of railroad workers who pound down those one-pounders with ease. Other burger options include a tortilla burger and a taco burger, both with cheese and chile.
The right-hand side of the menu is captioned “Favorites” and it’s easy to see why. Favorites include a jumbo barbecue burger, hot dogs, fried bean burritos, chicken wraps, chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, chile cheese fries, nachos with jalapenos, French fries and two sides: green chile or nacho cheese. Though your intended meal may be a green chile cheeseburger, it would be easy to get get off-course. Everything on the menu sounds delicious.
Should you stay on track and opt for the green chile cheeseburger, you’ll be rewarded with one of the very best in New Mexico. The secret to this burger is definitely the green chiles the Tabet family purchases from Rosales Farms in nearby Escondido. This chile bites back with a piquancy rarely found in Duke City burgers. It’s a fresh, delicious neon green pile of deliciousness, spread generously on lightly toasted buns. Other ingredients on this burger are fresh tomatoes, red onions, pickles, crisp lettuce and mustard.
Everything on the menu is prepared to order on a well-seasoned flat metal grill that retains flavors well and cooks at consistent temperatures. The results are an excellent green chile cheeseburger, the type of which you might want a second or third, even if you order a half-pounder as I did. The coalescence of fresh ingredients and the lean, fresh, hand-pressed beef coupled with terrific green chile places this burger in rarefied company as one of the very best in New Mexico. That’s not just my contention. Circle T competed in the governor’s inaugural green chile cheeseburger during the 2009 state fair and made an excellent accounting for itself.
Another surprising, albeit non-traditional burger, you won’t find anywhere else is Circle T’s jumbo barbecue burger, a quarter-pounder resembling a sloppy Joe. It doesn’t taste like a sloppy Joe. The ground beef on this magnificent burger is ameliorated with a tangy barbecue sauce tinged with red chile for even more bite. It’s a handful and if you’re not careful, the contents may find their way onto your clothes (Murphy’s Law postulates that you’ll be wearing a white shirt when you eat one).
French fries are also quite good. They’re the thin variety, the type of which you might find at LotaBurger, but they’re lightly salted. That’s easily remedied or you can opt for a ketchup coverage instead. To wash down your food, Circle T offers old-fashioned milk shakes. They’re teeth-chattering cold and have a pronounced chocolate flavor chocoholics appreciate.
Circle T Burgers is on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. It’s less than half an hour away from Albuquerque and well worth the visit. Taste what Belen residents have enjoyed for more than fifty years–one of New Mexico’s true restaurant gems serving one of its best green chile cheeseburgers and so much more.
Circle T Burgers
523 South Main Street
Belen, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 July 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Half-Pound Green Chile Cheeseburger, Jumbo Barbecue Burger