March 7, 2012 at 10:49 AM

New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

"...find your favorite version of the green chile cheeseburger at hundreds of restaurants around the state"

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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The green chile cheeseburger has been a New Mexico icon since the 1950s, when diners and restaurants along Route 66 began serving them up to hungry travelers. Today, they are one of New Mexico's culinary treasures, celebrated far and wide for their flavorful pairing of hearty beef, spicy chile and gooey cheese.

From Taos to Tucumcari, Santa Fe and Socorro, restaurants have created their own versions of the green chile cheeseburger, adding a special ingredient or using homemade ingredients to come up with their unique version of this famous burger. Whether you like yours piled high with onions, slathered with mayo or mustard or served plain so that the flavors of the beef and the roasted green chile stand out, you're bound to find your favorite version of the green chile cheeseburger at hundreds of restaurants around the state.

New Mexico's burgers have been praised far and wide, in the pages of GQ magazine, which included the burgers from Bobcate Bite and Buckhorn Tavern in the July, 2008 article, "The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die." The Food Network's Guy Fieri featured Bert's Burger Bowl's burger in his show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

The New Mexico Tourism Department makes it easy to find the state's best burger joints with its Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a map of some four dozen diners, drive-ins, restaurants and cafes across the state, recommended by more than 8,000 residents, visitors, reviewers and restaurateurs.

In Santa Fe, the trail includes Bobcat Bite, which has been serving this New Mexican staple since 1953 in a former trading post on Old Las Vegas Highway, once part of  historic Route 66. Bobcat Bite's green chile cheeseburgers have been praised by Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, and Bon Appetit, which hailed this two-fisted feast as the "Best Burger in America."

Each burger here is made from 10 ounces of choice chuck freshly ground every morning and shaped into a patty by hand. Bobcat Bite serves  200 pounds of hamburger every day, even though it only has five dining tables. Even the local wildlife loves these burgers. According to restaurant lore, the café got its name long ago, when bobcats used to come to the back door seeking leftovers.

The trail includes another New Mexico icon, Bert's Burger Bowl, which lovingly makes its burgers the same way they've been  made for decades. "We do it traditional Santa Fe style," says chef/owner Fernando Olea. The recipe calls for  Hatch green chile seasoned with garlic, onion and a dash of oregano. The burger is topped with American cheese. "We try to keep everything the way it was 58 years ago."

Relative newcomer Atrisco Café is also on the trail. Here, the burgers are made with natural, hormone-free beef raised in New Mexico. "That makes a big difference," says restaurant manager Joel Celis. "Also, we use whole grain buns and Hatch green chile with a nice kick. The burger comes with cheddar, Swiss or American cheese, and homemade French fries."

Real Food Nation earned a spot on the trail too, probably because their burgers are made with grass-fed, grass-finished beef, which means the cows are fed grass their entire life. "A lot of feedlot burgers are much fatter – that's what the grain and corn does," said Blyth Timken, who owns Real Food Nation with her husband, chef Andrew MacLauchlan. "Ours are leaner. They're not dripping with juice, but they have more Omega 3s and 6s than feedlot beef. And the flavor is different. Some people say it's a little more gamey, like deer or elk or any other animal that just eats what it's mean to as opposed to what humans want to feed it." RFN also offers gluten-free buns, which appeals to an entire segment of New Mexicans who haven't been able to bite into a green chile cheeseburger on a bun because they are allergic to wheat.

Fittingly the trail also includes La Plazuela, in historic La Fonda on the Plaza, where chef Lane Warner makes half-pound burgers out of fresh-ground patties delivered daily, adding Hatch green chile and smoked cheddar, Swiss or American cheese. But the clincher is how they prepare the bun made from telera, a savory Mexican bread. "The key to a good burger is making sure that you toast the bun," Warner says. "We rub ours with garlic butter and put them on the grill and get them nice and toasty."

El Parasol scored a spot on the trail as well. The Atencio family opened the restaurant franchise in 1954 in Espanola and continues to run it today, serving up burgers that are simply delicious. "Everything is freshly homemade and our burgers come with cheese, green chile, guacamole, lettuce, pickles, onions and mustard and they're cooked to perfection," says Alex Tapia, assistant manager. "We use homemade green chile and that's what makes them so delicious."

Down south, in the tiny town of Antonio outside of Socorro, a longtime battle for the title of New Mexico's best burger has pitted The Owl Bar & Café against the Buckhorn Tavern, located right across the street.

In 2009, the Food Network's Bobby Flay came to town to challenge the Buckhorn's owner Bobby Olguin to a green chile cheeseburger throwdown. Olguin won with his beloved burger made of beef seasoned with granulated garlic and dressed with green chile, American cheese, lettuce, pickles, onions, tomatoes and mustard. As he put it to Flay, "the green chile cheeseburger should taste like going to heaven or being married to somebody that you love and want to be with the rest of your life. It's just indescribable."
In honor of Olguin's win, former Gov. Bill Richardson declared Friday, July 24 2009 "Buckhorn Tavern Day."

At the Owl Café, which got its name from illegal late-night poker game participants, or "night owls", the meat is freshly ground and the patties formed by hand. Once cooked, they are loaded with lettuce, tomato, pickles, cheese, onion, green chile and mayo. On a typical summer day, the café serves up 600 to 700 burgers. Food writers Jane and Michael Stern ranked The Owl's burger as one of the top ten burgers in America in 2003.

Hungry yet? For more info about where to find the best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico, visit www.newmexico.org/greenchilecheeseburger

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