Pasatiempo - - AMUSE-BOUCHE -

How can such a tiny town have so many great green chile cheese­burg­ers? The ques­tion rang out in my head as I left San An­to­nio, New Mex­ico, after a re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the sto­ried ri­valry be­tween two es­tab­lish­ments. Nes­tled a few miles north of the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San An­to­nio will see thou­sands of vis­i­tors to the 30th an­nual Fes­ti­val of the Cranes for six days be­gin­ning Tues, Nov. 14. Each year, wildlife en­thu­si­asts from all over the coun­try de­scend on the Bosque to wit­ness the re­turn of the sand­hill cranes and snow geese to their win­ter habi­tat. And, com­ing or go­ing, any vis­i­tor is hereby ad­vised to stop in the vil­lage — pop­u­la­tion 165 at the most re­cent cen­sus — to get a cheese­burger.

De­cid­ing just where to get that burger is a tasty prob­lem. Our first stop was the Owl Bar & Café, whose bar has the dis­tinc­tion of com­ing from the first room­ing house where ho­tel mag­nate Con­rad Hil­ton, San An­to­nio’s most fa­mous son, worked. Es­tab­lished in 1945, the Owl was also the pre­ferred wa­ter­ing hole of atomic sci­en­tists who worked on the Trin­ity Site 28 miles away. The café, run by Rowena Baca, the daugh­ter of the orig­i­nal owner, and her hus­band Adolph, says its closely guarded green chile cheese­burger recipe re­mains un­changed since 1948, and much of its kitschy-cozy, dark wood-pan­eled in­te­rior looks to be of the same era.

The cheese­burger’s very ap­pear­ance screamed Amer­i­can clas­sic even be­fore the first bite. Rea­son­ably sized, high-stacked but com­pact, it be­gan at the base with a lacy, thin, hand-formed beef patty un­der bright lo­cal green chile with a melted slice of Amer­i­can cheese over it, then shred­ded ice­berg let­tuce and rings of onion and tomato topped by a plain bun. It was mes­mer­iz­ingly fan­tas­tic, with fla­vors melded into a mys­te­ri­ous syn­ergy borne out by the trin­ity of house-ground ten­der beef, molten cheese, and sweet-hot chile, the sum made sub­lime by the fi­nesse of the bun’s lightly toasted crunch. I never wanted to stop eat­ing it, so I went as slowly on my half as pos­si­ble. Af­ter­ward, I wor­ried that I had to en­dure other cheese­burg­ers for the rest of my life. But we crossed the road to the Owl’s sto­ried com­peti­tor, the

Buck­horn Tav­ern, whose sign boasts “#7 in Amer­ica” (an honor be­stowed by GQ in a na­tion­wide best-burg­ers roundup). The Buck­horn is a year older than the Owl, and while its rep­u­ta­tion for green chile cheese­burg­ers may have come later, the pres­tige of its of­fer­ing is no less im­pres­sive. The Buck­horn’s chef Bobby Ol­guin bested the Food Net­work’s Bobby Flay in a 2009 green chile cheese­burger duel, and press clip­pings about Ol­guin’s cre­ation line the walls of the old-time road­house. The Buck­horn’s burger is a meat-bomb, stacked op­po­sitely from the Owl’s in a way that pri­or­i­tizes the thicker patty — the green­chile-and-cheese laden patty sits di­rectly un­der the top bun, while shred­ded ice­berg, tomato, and sliced onion are heaped at the bot­tom. It is as if the Owl’s burger were reimag­ined by the chef’s brash son-in-law, with the prin­ci­ples “more is more” and “up is down” in mind — and it was no less de­li­cious, fea­tur­ing ex­tra-atomic chile and a gen­er­ous swath of mus­tard.

I pre­ferred the Owl’s more bal­anced ver­sion, while my pal loved the heftier Buck­horn’s — un­til we heeded the ad­vice of a lo­cal who worked at the Snake Ranch Farm Store. He firmly ad­vised us to for­get those other green chile cheese­burg­ers and go to the town’s only other eatery, the San An­to­nio Crane

Mex­i­can Restau­rant. Here, we took a fi­nal con­tender to go, one that threw a wrench into an epic duel by be­ing out­stand­ing in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent way. With a patty sized at a happy medium be­tween the other two, both the meat and the chile were more com­plexly spiced — and more stewed, as if the beef had been fin­ished in chile sauce. After pol­ish­ing off more than his share be­hind the wheel, my ac­com­plice de­clared it his new and ab­so­lute fa­vorite.

Me, I’m still stuck on the Owl’s burger. But I’d go back and retest the whole sit­u­a­tion any day, sand­hill cranes or no sand­hill cranes. — Molly Boyle

Owl Bar & Café

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