Although most people likely envision New Mexico as a sandy, arid plain dotted with adobe and crisscrossed by the Rio Grande, the landscape is actually quite diverse depending on the corner of the state to which your travels take you. For instance, drive an hour north of the developed, populated valley of Albuquerque, and you will find yourself dwarfed by the lush Jemez Mountains. As you enter the wilderness of the Santa Fe National Forest, you may curse yourself for not packing an extra sandwich or serving of trail mix. The ride on Route 4 from San Ysidro to Los Alamos (home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where Oppenheimer and colleagues worked mid-century to develop the first atomic bomb) is a gorgeous 60-mile drive through dramatic canyons, along a road that does not appear likely to turn up delicious Roadfood finds. Luckily, however, not long before you reach the mineral-laden waters of Soda Dam, you come upon the small village of Jemez Springs.
Small enough to warrant quick braking (or possibly a U-turn), the “commercial” strip of Jemez Springs is home to only a handful of restaurants. Armed with only short blurbs from the National Forest newsletter, we decided to try the fare at the Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon. As it was late in the afternoon, we were not given the customary choice between the family-friendly restaurant and the louder, more energetic saloon side. This was fine with us, as we would have chosen to sit beneath the deer antler chandelier anyway, where the locals were exchanging stories across the well-weathered wooden bar.
We ordered two of the house specialties, the “Famous Jemez burger” and the Chile Charley, and were not disappointed. A week (and many meals) into our travels around the Land of Enchantment, we were finally willing to order a burger that was not topped by the state-standard of chile and cheese. The Jemez burger was instead topped with Swiss cheese and a mound of black olives, and we chose to substitute a buffalo burger for the standard ground beef patty. Both bun and burger were perfectly charred, lending a delightful crunchy texture to each bite. As we had vowed to not let a day go by without delighting in the state fruit, we fulfilled this personal goal with the Chile Charley, a large plate of plump potato wedges covered with chile, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and olives. This appetizer plate gave new meaning to the concept of chili cheese fries, and left our heat-seeking palates perfectly satisfied.
The menu at Los Ojos contains a range of edible options from burritos to sandwiches, including an advertised prime rib special on Friday and Saturday evenings. Judging from the jukebox and pool tables crowding the old wooden floor, this saloon likely becomes a hot spot for locals and weary travelers once the sun goes down.