Established in 1974 in downtown Santa Fe and still owned and operated by the same family, The Original Realburger — known locally as Realburger — enjoyed a devoted local following on Don Gaspar Avenue for more than 15 years. A short stint next to a motel further out of town on Cerrillos Road under the name Moongazerz was followed by a move to its current location, a building on Old Pecos Trail that has seen its fair share of restaurants open and fold. There was the popular Peppers restaurant. And then there were, in quick succession, Fresh Peppers, Pecos Trail Pizzeria, and the stripper-pole-sporting Chilacas.
Mom and dad, fear not. The pole is gone, and Realburger is, as it always has been, a casual, family-friendly place to eat. Booths and tables with plenty of elbow room occupy a spacious dining area, and a separate bar for the big kids, with television screens, keeps the sports coverage and beer flowing.
A call to Realburger on a recent Saturday afternoon to make sure it was open for dinner was met with, “Oh, totally. We’re always open on Saturday night. Come on in!” But when we arrived, we discovered the restaurant was closed for a private wedding celebration. (Fade to me eating string cheese and olives over the kitchen sink.) I returned midweek with a colleague and ordered a Super Real Burger with Swiss cheese, cooked medium rare. It wasn’t super. The promise of two juicy six-ounce Angus-beef patties cooked to the desired temperature rang empty. Served wrapped in foil on a plate — “It keeps the bun soft,” I was told — the burger was sinewy, tepid, and cooked to well done. The “burger bar,” as it was advertised at the table, was where all the fixings could be found. Iceberg lettuce, mealy tomatoes, wilted red onions, and lukewarm pickle slices do not a joyous burger bar make. Raise the bar, or raze it. Or just put the groceries on the plate.
Hand-cut fries are offered as a separate menu item. I appreciate the hard work it takes to hand-cut potatoes for frying. I would have appreciated it more at Realburger if mine had been cooked past the semi-raw stage. A plate of honey-kissed fried chicken fared better. Three pieces of chicken were crisp and slightly sweet on the outside and tender-juicy inside. Unfortunately, institutional-tasting mashed potatoes (no lumps, but the server swore they were house-made), reheated frozen crinkle-cut carrots, and other flavorless veggies dumbed the chicken dish down. Service was friendly but inattentive. A dirty spoon and paper straw wrappers sat on the table throughout the meal, and iced tea wasn’t refilled until we asked.
Lunch a few days later proved comical but also a bit redemptive from a service point of view. We arrived during a motorcycle rally, navigating a sea of Harley-Davidsons and leather chaps in search of a parking space. (Realburger graciously hosts rallies, fundraisers, and other community events throughout the year.) Our server was top-notch, aside from not refilling our water glasses. When my dining companion ordered the kung pao tofu — at a place called Realburger, mind you — he was told the restaurant no longer serves it. Thank god. We were offered free rein of the salad bar as a consolation prize, so we dug in. It was fresh, straightforward, and clean. Curious thing, though: the sneeze guard on the salad bar was missing, so a clever staffer had rigged a replacement shield made out of plastic wrap.
I wish that kind of ingenuity had extended to the burger I ordered. A six-ounce medium-rare Realburger arrived cooked to well done — again. A slice of Swiss cheese topped the patty like a starched bed sheet drying in an ice storm. My French fries were, once again, undercooked, but this time, they contained enough grease to lubricate every kickstand in the parking lot. Fish and chips were substandard: frozen planks of white fish battered and fried, shaped like kindergarten building blocks, and seasoned similarly. Sweetpotato fries originated from a bag in the freezer, we were told, but at least they were grease-free and cooked through.
Croissant French toast sounded delicious. What we ate, however, were two dry croissants covered in batter that tasted like burnt scrambled eggs, both pastries covered in slices of ripe kiwi fruit, the lot of it dusted overzealously with cinnamon.
Realburger is struggling to find its culinary identity, aiming to please nearby hotel guests while hoping to appease locals at the same time. Its service staff means well, but there doesn’t appear to be much managerial concern in the kitchen or on the floor lately. When the vegetarian section of your menu starts with the words, “Our chili is made with meat,” it’s time for introspection. It’s time for Realburger to get real.