The best green chile cheeseburger I have ever eaten was at Ski Apache near Ruidoso, New Mexico. I realize that there is a situational bias to that statement. Every day during ski season, weather permitting, cooks fired up an outdoor grill close to the lift line. The scents of fresh roasted green chiles and hamburger would drift up the lift line creating hunger pangs that made it hard to unload at the top. Then you had to deal with the wonderful fragrance as you made it down the trail as quickly as possible to get in line for your own burger.
Since then, I have been looking for the perfect green chile cheeseburger. I am not alone in that quest, nor am I the first. In fact, the State of New Mexico has its official Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. New Mexico has an official state cookie – the biscochito – and two official state vegetables – the chile and the pinto bean – but it does not have an official state dish, probably because there are a lot of candidates – enchiladas, Frito pie, fry bread among them. Nor does the state have an official sandwich even though nearly every New Mexican would probably agree that the designation should go to the green chile cheeseburger.
Nobody knows exactly who invented the GCCB. Some say it was the original Blake’s Lotaburger store in Albuquerque. (Blake’s is our local junior McDonald’s or In-N-Out with stores all over the state.) Of course that claim is disputed, and there are several claimants to the honor. Whatever the origins, the GCCB can be found in virtually every city and hamlet across the state, most of them claiming that they have the world’s best GCCB.
The first GCCB to gain national recognition came from the Owl Café in San Antonio, NM, a tiny little town just off Interstate 25. It was made famous by the commentator, Charles Kuralt who discovered it in his journeys around the USA. For years I always stopped at the Owl on my many trips up and down the interstate. Then I discovered Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern, just a short distance across the road in San Antonio. The rustic outsides, the numerous flashing beer signs and the armada of parked motorcycles suggested that it was not the place to be, but once inside, it felt comfortable and welcoming. Bobby Olguin, Manny’s son and heir was at the flat top behind a partition, frying up Buckhorn Burgers. The solitary middle-aged waitress was scurrying around taking orders, and the stuffed mountain lion and various birds of prey occupied the walls of the back room.
Bobby always stuck his head around the partition to give a welcome, and if things were slow, he would pay a little social visit at your booth. Then things changed. the Buckhorn was discovered by the Food Network and Bobby Flay, who lost a throw-down to Bobby Olguin. After that, there was a long waiting line at the front door and a sign that said, “Please wait to be seated” near the entrance. Bobby hired some cooks to work the flat top so that he could work the dining room, and sadly, the stuffed mountain lion disappeared because Bobby had watched Robert Irvine’s television series about restaurant re-dos. Bobby thought the place needed a face lift and the mountain lion had become too dusty and mangy. Nothing much else has changed, and the GCCBs are as good as they have ever been.
San Antonio, besides being the epicenter of the world of the GCCB is also the gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Bird and Wildlife Refuge. During the winter, birders from all over the world come to watch the hundreds of thousands of sand hill cranes, Canada geese, and snow geese along with bald eagles and numerous other birds. Of course, many of those tourists visit the Owl and the Buckhorn.
One of our previous governors, unwilling to get caught up in the controversy of who had the best GCCB in New Mexico, but wanting to promote the competition and with the encouragement of food writers, suggested the promotion of the GCCB. The Office of Tourism took up the effort in 2009. They created the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, identifying restaurants across the state with noteworthy GCCBs. The list was updated in 2011 with the help of noted Santa Fe cookbook author, Cheryl Alters Jamison, along with other food writers and cooking professionals. Their list included around 200 noteworthy GCCBs. Both the Owl and the Buckhorn recused themselves from any competitions to select the state’s best GCCB. Still, there were lots of potential candidates.
Sparky’s is a perennial favorite. In part that is because the place is in Hatch, home of the world-famous New Mexico green chile. Bert’s Burger Bowl in Santa Fe is often mentioned as a contender because it has been featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network. Unfortunately, some of the strongest contenders have shuttered their doors. One of my favorites was the Outpost in the town of Carrizozo, just down the road from San Antonio. It was a family biker bar with motorcycles lined up in front, 12-foot rattlesnake skins tacked up on the walls, a terrarium filled with lizards and other desert varmints, and a pool table toward the back of the dining room. They had a wonderful GCCB along with crisp but greasy French fries, but I guess the owner just got tired and decided to close.
In my view, the Santa Fe Bite stands in a class of its own. It formerly operated as the Bobcat Bite in a tiny little adobe building just off the interstate several miles from Santa Fe. It had quirky hours, and there was always a line waiting for coveted few seats when it was open. After a lease fight with the adobe’s owner, the restaurant relocated to much better, bigger digs in downtown Santa Fe. They are still jammed at lunch time. Their burger is made of 10 ounces of freshly ground sirloin, prepared to your liking. Because it is so big, even for medium rare it takes a while to prepare. Just be patient. You can get it plain, with cheese, with green chile, with bacon, or with all of the above along with fresh house-made potato chips and a side of onion and pickle. Of course, there’s mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise available, but to me that just covers up the great taste. The Santa Fe Bite GCCB is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and you should be prepared to ask for a doggy bag.
If you’re interested in following the GCCB Trail, check out the website. You won’t be disappointed wherever your travel takes you.