The chilest time of the year is here and it’s time to hit the road in search of New Mexico’s great green chile cheeseburgers.
I am blocks away from the Santa Fe Farmers Market in the city’s revamped Railyard Arts District, but already the aroma of fruity heat tickles my nose. As I approach, it intensifies until I get too close to the source — a hand-cranked perforated steel barrel roaster ablaze with blistering green chiles tumbling inside. Their sharp spice shoots straight for my eyes and lungs. I cough and back away from the contraption until the airborne licks of capsaicin — the compound that gives chiles their fierce, compelling kick — are out of range.
If adobe is New Mexico’s foundation, the green chile is its heart. “I think of it as the essence of my adopted state,” says longtime New Mexico resident Cheryl Alters Jamison, the James Beard Award-winning co-author of The Rancho de Chimayó Cookbook: The Traditional Cooking of New Mexico and creator of the “Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail” for the New Mexico Tourism Department. “The green chile is something powerfully delicious and found very few other places. It offers a shared indulgence and a sense of pride.”
I understand this after chomping down on yet another green chile cheeseburger, one of the favored ways of presenting the feisty thick-fleshed pods. The contender on my plate is the signature burger at Santa Fe’s Cowgirl BBQ: the Mother of all Green Chile Cheeseburgers. It’s a formidable order with green chiles used from top to bottom, beginning with the green chile-cheddar bun. Between the bread is a beef-bison patty mixed with bacon. Tangy melted brie pouring over the sides of the meat, more chopped green chiles soaked in white truffle oil, and a single tomato slice top the order. A couple of bites and I’m reflexively stomping my leg and catching my breath, until the only word I can utter is “Wow.”
In Alamogordo,I dart into Hi-D-Ho Drive In, open since 1952. It’s early July, midday temps are flirting with the century mark, and there is no indoor seating. There aren't any parking spaces left either. Luckily, there is plenty of covered seating outside of the enclosed the air-conditioned kitchen and pick-up counter. It’s just cool enough that I can feel the slow rise of spice from the chopped green chiles tucked into my house specialty, the knotty double patty cheeseburger, known as the Tiger Burger.
Farther south, at the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, third-generation owner Robert Olguin’s burger — a strata of beef, green chiles, onions, pickles, and cheese resting on a bed of lettuce and tomato and finished with a slather of mustard — has received special recognition from the state legislature. At Sparky’s BBQ, Burgers and Espresso in Hatch, things are kept simple but punchy with American cheese and a hearty smear of the smoky green stuff.
But there’s more to the green chile than a tasty burger. Ask Southwestern cuisine pioneer and native New Mexican John Rivera Sedlar. For Sedlar, it’s as much about identity as what’s on the menu — there’s essentially no separation between a New Mexican and the state’s signature sandwich.
“It’s part of who we are,” he says. “It was our go-to comfort food as children, and as adults, when you get off a plane, it’s the first thing you eat upon your return.”
While Sedlar is certainly content to enjoy a homey burger, and offers one on his menu at his modern Southwestern cuisine restaurant Eloisa, he’s also interested in applications beyond the beef patty, inspired by an ingredient whose characteristics mirror the climate and people of his home state: “It’s bracing and hot and full-flavored and surprising.”
Next on my green chile cheeseburger bucket list is the Owl Bar & Cafe in San Antonio. According to owner Janice Argabright, the restaurant’s version was born in 1948 when scientists working in labs at White Sands came in for lunch, but the kitchen was running out of clean plates. Instead of washing extra dishes and serving green chiles as the customary side, Argabright’s grandfather served the chiles on the cheeseburger. Thus, the Atomic Age introduced the world to a scorching icon of Western eats.
Originally published in May/June 2016 issue update August 20, 2019.
Photography: José R. Ralat