Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Mexico: In Search of the Perfect Green Chile Cheeseburger......

     We arrived in New Mexico continuing the adventure that has been Joie de Vivre.  We camped at a very nice little RV park in Las Cruces in order to soak up comforts for a few days.  By comforts of course I mean electric, water, sewer, a mail drop, and groceries, but it also would include shopping, sight seeing, and meeting up with a high school friend I hadn't seen in nearly 40 years.  I was excited for this visit as Doc knows more about Geology than I ever will in my lifetime.  Las Cruces is located in the south central part of the state so we kept our day trip travels within a two hour drive of 'home base'. 
     New Mexico is such a diverse state offering desert, canyons, rivers, real mountains, skiing, hunting & fishing, rockhounding, and a myriad of art and culture.  I have always enjoyed cooking with chile peppers, most notably the green NM #9.  Spicier than the Anaheim, but not as hot as the Jalapeno it gives any meal an excellent flavor with some heat in order to accentuate, but not overwhelm the dish.  Chopped, diced, roasted, or stuffed ala smaller Chile Rellenos, Poppers, or in nearly any meal including a cheeseburger these are hard to beat.  The best green chiles in the world come from the town of Hatch, NM.  These peppers do not store well unless dehydrated, or roasted and frozen.  Believe it or not I was able to find 1 pound bags of frozen diced Hatch Green Chiles in both mild and medium right at the local Wal Mart.  Barb informed me that SUPER HOT SCALD YOUR BUTT OFF bags would not be appropriate.  Obediently I put 6 pounds of the mild/medium in the freezer.
     Our first day trip led us across the Organ Mountains to the White Sands National Monument.  Later we lunched in Alamogordo at The Hi-D-Ho Drive In to sample one of their famous Green Chile Cheeseburgers.  Afterwards we visited the New Mexico Space Museum and Hall of Fame.  Barb was very impressed with that.  On the way home we climbed the mountain roads and did some photography at Aguirre Springs. 


      Aguirre Springs was a high altitude little campground at the end of a winding, climbing 7 miles of mountain road that I would never be able to get our RV into, but it was a fun side trip.  Yes, that's snow on those New Mexico mountains! 

      Day #2 found morning temps at 20 degrees and my friend a little 'under the weather' so Barb and I took off to explore for ourselves.  Once again we left Las Cruces and headed east to the Organ Mountains, but this time to Dripping Springs Recreation Area, only about 12 miles from town. 

     This area consists of the transition from low valley desert to the median reaches of the range.  The Dripping Springs Natural Area has over four miles of easy hiking trails, including the Dripping Springs Trail, which shows off desert scrub and low elevation pinon-juniper and oak woodlands, including an array of cactus and yucca.  Elevation at Las Cruces is 3908 feet while at the Dripping Springs Visitor Center it rises to 5600 feet and finally crests at the springs at 6200 feet.   The trail itself is only a 3 mile round trip so the elevation gain isn't that severe, but you do feel the decreased oxygen while hiking (not that I'm in any kind of shape anyways).  Temps at the springs were still only in the low 30s.  We did find snow both on the trail and on the cliff sides near the top.  The final 80 yards were slippery. 

     It was an enjoyable day despite the colder temps.  We did a little rock hounding on the way, but found little.  We headed back to town figuring we'd earned ourselves a good Mexican meal and a cold Dos Equis (no cheeseburger tonight). 
      Day #3 was New Years Day.  I put together a decent snack tray and I just 'vegged' and watched football all day.  Barb took advantage of an empty laptop and did the bills. 
    Day #4 set our course west to Deming, NM.  We were in 'Full Rockhounding Mode' so we set sail for the area best known for geodes, most notably Rockhound State Park and the Baker Ranch. We began at the GeoLapidary Rock Shop & Museum and the Spanish Stirrup Rock Shop to gain some local info before unleashing our rock hammers.   We did purchase some very nice rough pieces (and one pair of beautiful polished twin halves of Baker Ranch Geode).  We hiked the Geode Trail in the park, but only found pieces of Jasper & Rhyolite.  On our way back we stopped for lunch at Blake's Lot-a-Burger for a well earned...yep, you guessed it......Green Chile Cheeseburger. 
       Day #5 set us out on the ultimate one day road trip.  137 miles north of Las Cruces is the town of San Antonio.  It turned out to be quite the adventure as Central and Northern New Mexico got as much as 4-6 inches of new snow overnight.  Yeah I know it isn't really that much, but remember these folks don't usually see this much at one time.  Plenty of vehicles involuntarily on the side of the road or upside down were testament to this.   

      San Antonio is an innocent enough town, except that it is also the home of the two most famous Green Chile Cheeseburgers in the state.  The Owl Bar and Café and across the street is the Buckhorn Tavern.  After a coin flip we chose The Owl Bar.  On an average summer day the Owl Bar will serve an average of 600 to 700 burgers.  In 2003 the Owl's Green Chile Cheeseburger was rated as one of the Top 10 burgers in America by Epicurious.  Of course more food than burgers are served here.  They are also noted for their incredible steaks, pinto beans, and of course green chiles.  But, lets face it, this is what we came here for.  In fact, as the menu describes it....Crusty, gnarled patties of beef are covered with chopped hot green chilies and the chilies are in turn topped with a slice of cheese that melts into them and the crevices of the hamburger. The green chile itself is a flavor revelation; in concert with beef, it's magic. Customary condiments include raw onion, chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, and pickle chips. 

     About now you're asking yourself, "This knucklehead drove 4 hours round trip for a cheeseburger!?!?!?"  Yes, I did.  This is, after all......Joie de Vivre! 
      We also took a quick side trip to the town of Bingham, NM.....population 2.  Noteworthy because it is the home of the Blanchard Rock Shop.  Not only does it have tailings you can explore as well as a selection of local minerals, both raw and polished, but located adjacent to the Trinity Nuclear Test Site, this shop sells Trinitite, a man-made mineral that resulted from the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico.  Relax, much like's safe.  I did not purchase any Trinitite because the prices were awfully steep, but we did get some beautiful samples of Petrified Wood and Crazy Lace Agate


       Day #6 was The Finals of the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  We headed north to Hatch, NM. 

      We traveled north via the state highway instead of interstate so as to see as much of the agricultural countryside as possible.  The Mesilla Valley is famous for its chile pepper production, but is also home to many pecan orchards and cotton fields as well.  Although it is far past chile harvest time, some fields are left for seed purposes this spring.

       Our plan was to tour the town, including the Hatch Chile Express.  This shop is the largest distributor of Hatch Chile Peppers in the world.  You can find it all here in what form, quantity, or heat you're looking for.   In fact there are several businesses that offer many different chile products such as various grades of both red and green chile powder, dried peppers, ristras, salsas, even jellies, honeys, and pecans. 

      Afterwards we ate lunch at Sparky's.  This place comes highly recommended and is my friend's favorite placed to chow down on our favorite treat....a Green Chile Cheeseburger.  We arrived early, at the beginning of the lunch crowd, so the line was only about a dozen people.  Later it got much, much longer.  There is a sidewalk magician performing for your entertainment while you wait.  The kids loved him!   You have your choice of dining outside or inside at two separate dining areas, one of which has a live jazz band performing for your enjoyment, but several folks were enjoying the sunny afternoon dancing!         

      The 'Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail' is famous in these parts as a culinary map to some of the best 'Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives' in the state featuring the #1 taste treat.  There are 97 places in New Mexico that lay claim to THE BEST.  Since I am only human  I concentrated my efforts on either the most famous or those near our daily outings.  
      The famous Alamogordo Hi-D-Ho Drive In has been serving Green Chile Cheeseburgers for over 30 years.  In all honesty it was only fair.  The chiles provided the perfect amount of heat, but the burger flavor didn't have much taste. 
     The famous Owl Bar & Café Green Chile Cheeseburger.  Served for 60 years, it is the #1 rated Green Chile Cheeseburger in the state and one of the Top 10 Cheeseburgers in America by Epicurious.  FINALLY, I discovered a burger worth bragging about.  It is a burger of reasonable size with beef that is obviously hand formed and topped with anything you desire.  The chiles have excellent heat and flavor.  The flavor is excellent and is easily one of the best burgers I have ever had!  The Green Chile Onion Rings (also shown) were also to die for! 
     The famous Sparky's in Hatch, NM is noted not only for it's burgers, but some delicious BBQ,  Tecate' Beer Battered fish, and Teako's Tacos (featuring pulled pork, green chiles, and cheese) as well.  This is my friend Doc's favorite place.  As good as the Owl Bar burger was.......this one is even BETTER!  Sparky's is located on the main intersection in town and impossible to miss.  The owner has nearly a block of various large souvenir statues from other fast food establishments across the country from Ronald McDonald to the A & W Burger Kids to KFC's own Colonel Sanders!  There is plenty of parking.  There is always a line here to eat.  The burger is a THICK, savory, charbroiled burger topped only with REAL cheddar cheese and green chiles on a sesame seed bun.  Like the menu says, "It's all you need".  The burger is easily 1/3 of a pound.  The chiles provide the perfect amount of heat as well.  In fact, I could have used more.  My choice of side was Pineapple Coleslaw which was delicious as well.  As tempting as it was, I couldn't wrap my mind around a Hatch Chile Mango shake so I went with delicious, homemade lemonade.  Barb was unable to finish her burger in one session so it's a good thing we brought along our 2nd Team Taste Tester waiting in the truck.  Her rating?  WOOF WOOF! Congrats to Sparky's for winning the 'Mad Chef Best Green Chile Cheeseburger' in New Mexico. 

     In Deming, NM this is the only 'chain restaurant' burger we ate during our entire stay.  Blake's Lot-a-Burger claims to make a burger that is so much like homemade you can't believe it!  These are not your 'chain type' preformed patties.....every burger begins as a seasoned ball of meat that is hand formed into the final product much like you would make at home.  There are many of these restaurants around New Mexico and it should be no surprise that they occupy 41 of the 97 places on the rankings.  The burger had PLENTY of heat, enough to make me break a sweat, but once again the burger lacked great taste. 
     All in all we had a wonderful visit with Doc, Sheryl, and the entire area of South Central New Mexico that we could get to.  It truly is the Land of Enchantment.   We got out and tried to experience as much of the local area and culture as we could.  The local cuisine here (not just burgers) is delicious, although Guacamole doesn't seem to be a common side dish.   The food is ALWAYS home cooked and the portions are large and fresh.  Although there are many good places to eat we enjoyed the food at Guadalupana and Burritos Victoria.  I don't speak any Spanish, but they didn't seem to mind helping out this Gringo. In fact they treated us like family.  After our mail pickup, laundry, and last minute shopping we will move on west.  The adventure continues..... 

WiFi courtesy of our Verizon MiFi Hotspot.....the RV park WiFi was pretty slow

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