Tag Archives: Owl Café

ON THE TRAIL OF THE GREEN CHILE CHEESEBURGER

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.

The now-closed Outpost in Carrizozo, New Mexico

The now-closed Outpost in Carrizozo, New Mexico

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.

Green chile cheeseburger with bacon and house-made potato chips at the Santa Fe Fite

Green chile cheeseburger with bacon and house-made potato chips at the Santa Fe Fite

If you’re interested in following the GCCB Trail, check out the website. You won’t be disappointed wherever your travel takes you.

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SAND HILL CRANES AND MANNY’S BUCKHORN TAVERN

Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache sits nearly in the center of New Mexico and it is one of our favorite places to visit, especially this time of year. It is a major bird refuge for winter water fowl. Even if you are not a birder, it is worth a three-hour drive from just about any place in the state. For that matter, serious bird watchers come from all over the United States. Snow geese and Sand Hill cranes number in the thousands, and there are many Canada geese, ducks, grebes, coots, golden eagles, and bald eagles as well.

Sand Hill crane feeding

If you plan a visit, you should do it soon, as the birds will be leaving in the next few weeks to start their northern migration to the plains and tundra of Canada. You should also plan your visit so that you arrive just before sunset or before sunrise. During the day, the cranes and geese have been feeding in nearby grain fields. When evening comes, the birds fly into the many lakes and ponds to spend a cold night safe from predators. The evening arrivals are spectacular, as large flocks fly in, making loud noises and silhouetting themselves against the mountains and the sunset. The morning flights are also beautiful, but you need to be in place well before dawn to catch the show.

Sand Hill cranes against the sunset

To get there, travel on I-25 to the little town of San Antonio. Directions from there will be clear. When you arrive, your first stop should be at the visitors’ center where friendly volunteers will tell you the current viewing sites – they tend to change over time.

In flight and ready to land

Then plan a leisurely drive around the loop to see raptors, smaller birds, dabbling ducks, geese, and cranes feeding in the fields. There is a small fee for the trip because even though this is a federal reserve, it is not well-funded. The fee is worth it. Time your tour so that before the sun has begun to set you are in place for the main event. Have your camera and binoculars at the ready because gradually the cranes will begin to come in, first by ones and twos, and eventually in great noisy flocks that continue to land in the shallow lakes even as the light fades into night.

Getting ready for the night

In the morning, the flights may be even more amazing. Usually, as if by some signal, the birds will depart in one great cloud and with noisy chatter. But they are early risers, so you will miss the even if you are not in place well before dawn.

Night time and the show is almost over

If you want to catch both the evening and morning performances, there is a small RV park nearby. Otherwise you will need to plan on staying in Socorro, a half hour or so toward the north.

Manny's Buckhorn decor

San Antonio has another claim to fame: it is home to two of the great stops on the Quest for the Best Green Chile Cheeseburger. The Owl Café is an institution, and for many years we stopped there on our trips between Santa Fé and El Paso. We always drove by a little bar on the other side of the road. It looked like a honky-tonk, and its glowing beer signs  and its name, “Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern”, seemed only to confirm that.

Buckhorn Burger - green chile cheeseburger

One night, though, we ventured in. It was not very crowded, and the crowd was clearly made up of locals. Bob Olguin, the owner and son of the founder, was behind the grill, cooking and chatting with everyone – us included. We ordered the Buckhorn burger – green chile cheeseburger – and thought we had finished the Quest.

French fries

Fried onion rings

For years, we stopped at the Buckhorn; the crowds got bigger; but Bob kept his place at the grill. Then he wound up on national TV in a throw down with Bobby Flay. Since then, the crowds have become huge, especially during tourist season, and now there is a sign directing you to wait until seated. Bob no longer works the grill, but he visits each table as customers wait for their burgers. Still, the atmosphere has not changed, and the Buckhorn burgers are as good as ever. The experience is one you shouldn’t miss.  Just be sure to get fries or onion rings with your order.

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