The Origin Story
No one can say for certain who was the first to slap green chile and cheese on a hamburger. (We can say that this person was a genius.) Most experts agree that the Original Owl Bar & Café, in tiny San Antonio, New Mexico (pop. 11), has one of the most convincing arguments for being the first to sell them.
(third-generation Owl Bar owner-operator)
It used to be a mercantile store in the 1930s. My great-grandfather sold cold cuts and cheese. The atomic scientists at the Trinity Site would come in from the desert, and they would want hot food, beer, and whiskey. That’s how we got started in 1945. My grandfather used to make the cheeseburgers with a side of picante sauce—red and green chile together. A lot of the farmers around here grew green chile, so he started using fresh green chile. That was a big hit.
(second-generation Owl Bar owner-operator)
I was born in 1934 and went to school in San Antonio and then Socorro High School. Nobody knew what a green chile cheeseburger was when I was growing up.
Argabright: One day my grand-father didn’t have a dishwasher. He got upset, so he just threw the chile on the meat and cheese and started doing it like that. So we think we invented the green chile cheeseburger.
Baca: The rivalry with the Buckhorn Tavern [kitty-corner from the Owl] started when they saw that my daddy was making a lot of money. They wanted in on the deal, so they started making chile burgers, too.
(secretary, Socorro County Historical Society)
Miguel Olguin’s son, Manny, took over the Buckhorn Tavern in 1945. He quickly added a small restaurant to provide food to the Trinity Base travelers and the soldiers. It also seems this was triggered by seeing the Owl Bar being built across the street. Both restaurants served green chile hamburgers. I was never able to prove definitively which opened first. It appears to have been within weeks of each other.
CHERYL ALTERS JAMISON
(James Beard Award–winning cookbook author and creator of New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail)
It’s a little bit like the breakfast burrito. Of course people had eaten tortillas wrapped around eggs and chile before. It’s the same with a burger. Somebody was putting that together, but to actually make it a “green chile cheeseburger” and promote it that way, I wouldn’t dispute the Owl’s claim.
(chef-owner of Sazón and former chef-owner of Bert’s Burger Bowl, 1991–2015, both in Santa Fe)
Everybody says they created it. We used to say we did at Bert’s Burger Bowl. In Santa Fe, we were the creators of the chile cheeseburger.
(senior research specialist, Chile Pepper Institute, Las Cruces)
I grew up on a farm in Española, and we always grew chile. Putting green chile on our burgers in the summertime was just a no-brainer. It’s been a New Mexico thing for many, many years.
As more restaurants created their own versions, green chile cheeseburgers steadily won over the hearts and stomachs of New Mexicans. By the early 2000s, out-of-staters were taking notice. The green chile cheeseburger was ready for its worldwide close-up.
(president, Blake’s Lotaburger)
The first Lotaburger opened on a warm July day in 1952. The original Lota Burgers did not come with green chile. A few years after, Blake Chanslor witnessed a customer putting green chile on a Lota Burger. Blake tried the condiment and loved the flavor combination.
Olea: I ate my first green chile cheeseburgers at Blake’s Lotaburger. I loved the double meat and double cheese. Coming from Mexico to Minneapolis and then Santa Fe, it was incredible to eat chile. It felt like home.
Jamison: I moved to Santa Fe in 1980. People kept telling me I needed to try Bert’s Burger Bowl. It was the green chile cheeseburger with barbecue sauce. It was a revelation.
(owner, Santa Fe Bite, and former owner, Bobcat Bite)
I joined Bobcat as a server in ’89, and the green chile cheeseburger was the most popular menu item. When John [Eckre] and I took over Bobcat Bite in 2001, that’s when I feel the green chile cheeseburger really took off. George Motz, out of New York, who wrote Hamburger America, put John and me on the map. We started getting phone calls from all over the nation.
(owner, Range Café, Bernalillo, Albuquerque, and Los Lunas)
I remember when the McDonald’s in Bernalillo opened in the early ’90s. Locals would say, “You can’t get green chile on your burger at McDonald’s, how ridiculous is that?” But then even McDonald’s got hip to it and offered green chile as a side. I think Blake’s had something to do with it, as a New Mexico chain.
Jamison: I was appointed by former governor Bill Richardson as a culinary tourism consultant. I’d been bugging him about the fact that I didn’t think New Mexico promoted its culinary resources adequately. When we came up with the idea for the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2008, it was really something for everybody. It’s turned into one of the iconic tourism trails in the country.
The Holy Trinity
Everyone has their own idea of what makes a perfect green chile cheeseburger. But certain points cannot be disputed.
Argabright: We get our chile from around the area and from Hatch. We buy it fresh and do our special little thing with it. It’s a secret, how we cook it.
Olea: We used Hatch chile, roasted and diced. We cooked it on the stove with onions, garlic, some oregano. No cumin. Cumin is in Texas cuisine, and they think that’s the only spice that exists.
Coon: The Chile Pepper Institute released two varieties—one is NuMex Heritage Big Jim and the other is NuMex Heritage 6–4,
both have five times more flavor compounds than their predecessors. People really love those. They’re perfect for burgers.
Rule: Blake’s Lotaburger has our own proprietary cultivar of Hatch green chile, so it has the absolute best flavor.
Jamison: The meatiness, the beefiness, getting a good, crisp sear on a burger and still having it juicy in its interior. The soft, melty cheese and its gooeyness; the sharpness and full flavor of the green chile on top of it. Those things need to be the predominant flavors.
Olea: Eighty percent lean meat, 20 percent fat. The other thing that’s very important is to do it on an open fire and a grill. That smoky, charred flavor, that’s what makes a burger.
Bonnie Eckre: We started grinding our own beef. It’s from Western Way, out of Moriarty. It’s the traditional chuck shoulder and sirloin—85/15 is the fat content.
John Eckre: I built my own cast-iron grills. All our meat is cooked on cast iron.
Argabright: We have a seasoned, aged grill.
Baca: The grill’s about 75 years old, I guess. We’ve never changed it.
Jamison: You can make a great burger on a griddle, but I favor a grill. If I want to pull out all the stops, I’ll do it over a wood fire in my outdoor fireplace. That’s the ultimate.
DiGregory: I’d always been kind of a diehard “real cheese” person. But at places like Sparky’s, in Hatch, they have American cheese on their burger. The best ones all have it.
Jamison: People sometimes try to upgrade the cheese to something sharp, but that’s not a cheese that melts well. A mild cheddar or Jack, I like. To my mind, one of the only decent uses for American cheese is on a burger.
Olea: American cheese—classic American cheese. That’s the way everybody loves it. Your yellow cheese with your nice meat, salt, and pepper, that’s all you need.
Bonnie Eckre: An American and white Swiss blend is our traditional cheese.
Green chile cheeseburgers transcend menus. Every place that serves them has its own extra-special element beyond the burgers.
Baca: You know how some customers come into the Owl? In an urn. They bring the whole family after the funeral of their grandpa or grandma. They put the urn on the table and say, “This was her favorite place.” A lot of people have done that.
Argabright: Besides the cheeseburgers, the mahogany bar is our pride and joy. It was salvaged from the fire that destroyed Gus Hilton’s saloon. The Hilton mercantile and saloon was about a quarter of a mile from where we are. It took a group of men two days to walk the bar down from the original place to our place. I think they stopped every little while for hamburgers and beer.
Baca: Can you imagine all the people who have sat there? Movie stars, governors.
Bonnie Eckre: Santa Fe Bite has come to be employee-owned. John and I felt like it was time for Angie Mason and Armando Rivas [manager and chef, respectively] to have the same opportunity that we did, to continue family traditions. That’s what I feel in my heart that Bobcat Bite, and now Santa Fe Bite, has always stood for.
Argabright: You’ve got to treat your employees like family—and cook with love.