By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
As pilgrims on the road of reprobate gastronomy, we encounter all sorts of green chile cheeseburgers (henceforth referred to as GCCBs) at drive-ins and truck-stops throughout the Southwest. But in New Mexico, where chile is a divine passion, the GCCBs are transcendent. From Las Cruces to Raton and from Gallup to Tucumcari, they are a menu staple as common as catfish in Arkansas and as cherished as prosciutto in Parma. In the Mesilla Valley in the southern part of the state, where most of New Mexico’s long green chiles grow, hamburgers frequently are draped with whole pods that have been roasted, peeled, and seeded. In San Antonio in the heart of the state, THE OWL BAR has built so exalted a reputation on its big, juicy cheeseburgers smothered with hot green chile that aficionados drive from Texas and Colorado to eat ’em two at a time.
In and around Santa Fe, the art of making green chile cheeseburgers reaches its apotheosis, and not just at bars, dives, and dime-store lunch counters: GCCBs turn up on some of the most respected menus in town. Even stylish young chefs try their hand at updating the straightforward sandwich recipe that calls for a hamburger with melted cheese on top to be spread with chopped green chiles and served on a bun. The formula is so prevalent in the capital city that LA PLAZUELA, the restaurant in the courtyard of the landmark La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza, lists its palate-pleasing combo of beef, cheese, and green chile as a “Santa Fe style” hamburger. You can get a tasteful redaction of it in the Dragon Room of Rosalea Murphy’s venerable PINK ADOBE restaurant, where a handsome grilled chopped sirloin patty is available with green chile relish. And at the estimable PALACE RESTAURANT, long known for suave Continental service, an even fancier GCCB with Gorgonzola has its place on the menu alongside such delicacies as homemade gnocchi, duckling Frangelico, and veal scaloppine saltimbocca.
One of the more unusual variations on the theme is served in the ANASAZI RESTAURANT at the chic Inn of the Anasazi: a buffalo burger on a brioche. It is possible to order melted white Cheddar on the burger, but it isn’t really necessary, for the brioche itself is rich with the taste of Cheddar mixed into the dough—dough that is also laced with bits of snappy green chile. The buffalo meat is dense, moist, and flavorful—and delightfully counterpointed by the peppery tang and creamy riches of the buttery bun that envelops it. With none of the mess of an ordinary GCCB (customers actually eat this one with a knife and fork)—and served in the top-drawer setting of the nicest hotel dining room in town—this sandwich might not be recognized by a beef burger purist, but it belongs on the eating itinerary of any connoisseur with a curious palate.
The Anasazi’s aristocratic gloss on a fundamentally plebeian sandwich made us eager to experience more of the upper echelons of Santa Fe cheeseburgerology. Our next stop was at ATALAYA RESTAURANT AND BAKERY, a brash modem eatery with an eclectic seasonal menu that, at the time of our visit, had offerings ranging from pumpkin risotto to Cajun fettuccine and included such inventive sandwichery as an eggplant po’ boy and a squash quesadilla. Here, with little coaxing, we managed to secure an off-the-current-menu interpretation of the OCCB that was a demure patty of high-quality beef overlaid with melted Monterey Jack cheese and accompanied by a ramekin of chopped green chiles to spoon out on our own. The burger came on a broad toasted bun made in Atalaya’s own prodigious bakery—a breadstuff so good it threatened to upstage the meat, cheese, and chile it was supposed to support.
While strolling past Coyote Café, we couldn’t resist finding out if the town’s most famous chef, Mark Miller, had his own high-priced exegesis of the people’s favorite. “Oh, no, certainly not,” said the clerk at the restaurant’s gift shop. “That is too ordinary for here.” But then lowering her voice and leaning across the counter, she tipped us off to a winner: “If you want a green chile cheeseburger that’s awesome, look over there.” With only her eyes, she indicated the other side of the road, directing us to the SAN FRANCISCO STREET BAR AND GRILL.
In this happy-go-lucky modem pub, the air is redolent of burgers sizzling. Each unclothed table is set with a bottle of Heinz and a jar of Grey Poupon, and the burger is a beauty. It is a half-pounder on a toasted seeded bun, accompanied by lettuce leaves, tomato slices, red onion, a pickle wedge, and a choice of sweet, creamy coleslaw or nice French fries shaped like vigas, the narrow log beams that hold up adobe roofs. Green chiles, chopped into a hot purée, and Cheddar cheese, melted in a thick orange layer atop the rugged meat, are actually just two of several options available (others include sautéed onions and bacon). But these are the perfect toppings to choose, and—if you don’t insist on piling all the other garnishes into the bun too—it is actually possible to lift this exemplary sandwich in both hands and eat it like an ordinary burger.
The BLUE CORN CAFE in the Plaza Mercado attempts to solve the fundamental problem of making a sandwich out of such messy stuff by sometimes serving its GCCBS wrapped in a large flour tortilla rather than between halves of a bun. It makes a neat package on the plate, but, once you bite into it, cheese runs, carrying chopped green chile in the molten flow. Despite its unavoidable sloppiness, the burger is a good one; the cheeses (yellow and white intermingled) are creamy and the chile—though not particularly hot—has a good earthy smack. The soft tortilla lacks the absorbent qualities of the more traditional burger bun, but its wheaty taste and pliant texture are welcome elements.
The classic GCCB experience tends to be a walk on the wild side of culinary life. In the case of STOP AND EAT in nearby Espanola, it is a drive on the wild side. This old-time drive-in on the town’s main drag serves not only swell GCCBs that come in two sizes (regular or the two-patty “jumbo twin”) but green chile hot dogs, too—a wonderful subject for further study. In the evenings, half the fun of Stop and Eat is people (and car) watching. The clientele includes a large number of local low-riders in their chromed V-8 cruisers with fuzzy shag-rug dashboards that serve as informal dinner tables.
Another low-rent beauty of a burger is found at a freewheeling neighborhood hangout whimsically named for a proprietor who flew the coop. At DAVE’S NOT HERE, an off-the-beaten-path cafe in a residential part of Santa Fe, the best decor is on the counter: a lineup of homey cakes, cookies, sweet breads, and brownies contributed by local cooks. Behind this mouth-watering display is an open griddle where burgers are slammed down in either 9 ounce or 4 ½ ounce balls, then squished with a spatula and tended by a hashslinger in an impudent T-shirt, The results are beautiful: thick, crusty patties topped with lots of Jack cheese and finely chopped bits of mild chiles (or your choice of guacamole, jalapenos, salsa, onions, or mushrooms) and served on whole-wheat buns alongside French fries.
Some of the cheapest GCCBs in Santa Fe ($2.36 each, and all the more likeable for their cut-rate surroundings) are those served at BERT’S BURGER BOWL. Bert’s cooks big, flat patties of beef on a grate over charcoal, from which flames lick up and flavor not only the meat but also the slices of cheese laid upon it together with a big dollop of fiery green chile from a bucket near the fire. Bert’s burgers come fully dressed with mustard, pickles, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. The more experienced among the customers who dine under umbrellas on a patio overlooking Guadalupe Street, gradually peel back the wax paper in which the sandwich is wrapped as they eat, thus avoiding too much spillage.
The GCCBS we like best of all for intrinsic flavor, as well as for the roadhouse milieu of the joints that serve them, are found on the outskirts of town in cafés near the interstate. Way out on Old Las Vegas Highway southeast of Santa Fe, for example, BOBCAT BITE at first appears dilapidated, an impression reinforced when you pull into the rock-and-potholed parking lot around the low-slung 1950s-vintage adobe café. And yet, when you enter the little shoebox dining room and admire the polished wood on the five tables and the tidy nine-seat counter built on log-cabin lumber, you realize this place is immaculate, with no detail too small to escape the aesthetic vision of Bobby and Judy Amos, managers for the last seventeen years. Their little place is clean, cozy, and honest, so natty that it seems more like a highway hash house from a postwar Hollywood film noir than a restaurant of the real world. The menu is simplicity itself—steaks, chops, sandwiches, chili in winter, and a superb green chile cheeseburger year-round. Like everything else about this singular place, the presentation of the GCCB is impeccable and precise, and a little eccentric. In a plastic basket lined with yellow wax paper, the burger arrives displayed on a bun bottom that rests on a bed of potato chips. But instead of the usual chile-on-cheese configuration topping the meat, this cheese is melted over the chile, the two elements melding into one. Hidden beneath the bun top, which also rests atop the potato chips, are tomato slices and lettuce. The meat in this GCCB is extraordinarily good—high-quality beef, a full inch thick—complemented but not overwhelmed by chile more tangy than hot.
HORSEMAN’S HAVEN, an improbable discovery adjoining a filling station at the western end of Cerrillos Road, is a universe away from downtown Santa Fe’s more culturally ambitious restaurants. Operated by the Romero family since 1981, this extremely modest cafe, with its short spotless counter and half-dozen little booths and its delirious decor of all-equine art (statuettes, paintings, and plaques), has inspired a major underground buzz for its superb breakfast burritos loaded with eggs and bacon and topped with cheese and chile. It also happens to serve the most incendiary GCCB in town. The cheeseburger, six inches wide, is not itself exceptional, but the chile that tops it is eye-popping hot and utterly delicious, and spills across the plate with such abandon that utensils are necessary to scoop it all up.
It is especially gratifying to walk out of Horseman’s Haven, totally gladdened and lips aglow from chile, and to confront a vista of gas pumps and hear the rumble of passing trucks. Discovering a truly great chile cheeseburger in so humble a setting is one of travel’s joyful inspirations.
Atalaya Restaurant and Bakery (permanently closed)
320 South Guadalupe
Santa Fe, NM
Bert’s Burger Bowl (permanently closed)
235 North Guadalupe
Santa Fe, NM
Blue Corn Cafe
Dave’s Not Here (permanently closed)
1115 Hickox Street
Santa Fe, NM
The Palace Restaurant(permanently closed)
142 West Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, NM
The Pink Adobe
La Plazuela La Fonda Hotel
San Francisco Street Bar & Grill