SAN ANTONIO, NEW MEXICO
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