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Eating burgers on New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburger trail

J. Wellington Wimpy downed burger after burger in the dozens of “Popeye” cartoons, but I don’t believe the notorious moocher ever did so while visiting New Mexico.

His loss.

New Mexico is known for its love affair with art, so it’s appropriate that the green chile cheeseburger, a culinary work of art, has its own trail.

The New Mexico Tourism Department polled residents about their favorite chile cheeseburger joints, leading to anillustrated map listing 100 restaurants and chains from Abiquiu to Zuni Pueblo that feature the burgers.

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What makes these cheeseburgers worth hoofing it to New Mexico? 

Done right, the chiles are not just cooked but are roasted, resulting in a complex yet mellow heartiness. They pair well with slices of American, the often-disdained cheese that redeems itself with a viscosity that helps mate the chiles with the burger patty.

These are not jalapeños; these magical green Hatch chiles offer just enough sizzle to pique the palate but not enough to beat it into numbness. It’s baptism by a deliciously tempered fire.

And yes, chile cheeseburgers traditionally consist of just meat, bun, cheese and chile. Who needs more?

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Green chile cheeseburger at Sparky’s in Hatch, NM.
Green chile cheeseburger at Sparky’s in Hatch, NM.
(Eric Draper / For The Times )

(Speaking of tradition — and here, tradition is as essential as breathing — New Mexicans use the Spanish word “chile” derived from Aztec in place of the Anglicized “chili.”)

For the last several years, I’ve never set out on a New Mexico trip without researching spots to try cheeseburgers, even if it means detours of 50 miles or more.

I tend to avoid chains, preferring off-the-beaten-path places that serve “real” burgers, not patties thawed that morning.

Here, then, are some don’t-miss spots on the cheeseburger trail, a list based on my research and suggestions from helpful natives passionate about their burgers.

Sparky’s

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Hatch, N.M., in the Rio Grande valley, doesn’t call itself the “chile capital of the world” for nothing. Anyone driving Interstate 25 north of Las Cruces in summer will encounter the crisp, searing scent of thousands of acres of green chiles planted throughout the valley.

Hatch, of course, has its own cheeseburger palace called Sparky’s. It’s difficult to miss the kitschy figures, including anthropomorphic chiles, that make Sparky’s stand out in the quiet town.

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Although the menu lists other items, in my six or seven trips to Sparky’s I’ve never encountered anyone who has ordered something other than a chile cheeseburger ($7.49). The order counter even has a bright red button imprinted with the word “FAIL.” Underneath it, a sign instructs: “Press for no chile.”

Sparky’s simple burger sports a thin yet juicy patty that complements the pile of chile atop it rather than competes with it. As a true traditional chile cheeseburger, it comes without toppings.

As the menu admonishes: “Just Hatch green chile and cheese is all you need.”

Farmer Sergio Grajeda holds green Hatch chiles from his fields in Hatch, NM.
Farmer Sergio Grajeda holds green Hatch chiles from his fields in Hatch, NM.
(Eric Draper / For The Times)

Be sure to order the cut-from-the-cob roasted corn paired with Hatch chile and onion. Trust me; there’s no such thing as too much chile.

Info: 115 Franklin St., Hatch; [575] 267-4222, www.sparkysburgers.com. Open Thursdays-Sundays.

Santa Fe Bite

There are plenty of reasons to spend time in Santa Fe, a true American jewel. One particular joy is grabbing a cheeseburger at Santa Fe Bite.

It’s not hyperbole to exalt the Bite as a burger mecca; it’s earned a place on “best burger in the nation” lists compiled by USA Today, Travel+Leisure and more.

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What makes the Santa Fe Bite chile cheeseburger one of the best is difficult to articulate, but It’s thicker than most other chile cheeseburgers, and its patty is generously juicy. The large bun adds carbs to balance the protein but doesn’t overwhelm the burger.

At more than $12 for a chile cheeseburger, it’s pricier than most other burgers, but worth the extra silver. Add a real milkshake for a memorable belly-rubbing experience.

Info: 311 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe; [505] 982-0544,www.santafebite.com. Closed Mondays.

Owl Bar & Cafe

Friends Matt Fullam from Durango, CO and Anthony Appezzato from Denver, CO prepare to dig into their Green chile cheeseburgers at the Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio, NM
Friends Matt Fullam from Durango, CO and Anthony Appezzato from Denver, CO prepare to dig into their Green chile cheeseburgers at the Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio, NM
(Eric Draper / For The Times )

The Owl, in San Antonio, N.M., about 75 minutes south of Albuquerque, serves one of the best green chile cheeseburgers I’ve ever eaten, partly because of a deliciously seared crust on the finished patty.

Rowena Baca, who owns and runs the Owl with her husband, Adolph Baca, and daughter Janice Argabright, credits the military with helping keep the Owl popular for more than 70 years.

“After the bomb was detonated [nearby at the White Sands Missile Range in 1945], there were soldiers from all over the country stationed here,” Rowena Baca told me. “But they went back home and told people about us and came back on vacation.”

During my visit, I watched the kitchen crew grinding the beef, a freshness you can taste when chowing down. The burger pairs nicely with the chile cheese fries, French fries swimming in a thick green chile and cheese mixture. I’m pretty sure it was processed nacho cheese sauce, but here it works.

When visiting, take a seat at the bar, which was once part of Conrad Hilton’s first rooming house, mercantile store and saloon in San Antonio, most of which burned in 1945. 

The bar survived, making its way to the Owl, where it now seats customers visiting from as far away as Russia, China and Bolivia.

Info: 77 U.S. Highway 380, San Antonio; [575] 835-9946, www.sanantonioowl.com. Closed Sundays.