A Tale of Two Green Chile Cheeseburgers, The Original Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico and Oso Grill in Capitan, New Mexico

I’ve been neglecting one of the all-time great sandwiches, the green chile cheeseburger. My nephew, Senior New Mexico Correspondent, Jon Berry, has stepped up to fill the gap. I was just mentioning his son Henry, a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Texas, in my review of Terry Black’s in Austin, and you may remember Jon for his report on Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue, which also has been blessed by Daniel Vaughn, the Dean of Texas Barbecue. Jon, by the way, works at Los Alamos Labs doing work that he couldn’t possibly make comprehensible to me even if he were willing, and he’d probably have to kill me afterwards.

My experience of green chile is extensive, drawn from years of work on voting rights lawsuits on behalf of Navajo and Pueblo voters back in my Justice Department days. The work was complicated by a host of factors — language, distance, culture, and the need to develop ways to provide election information in historically unwritten languages to people with neither phones nor dependable mail service. It was the green chiles of New Mexico that kept me going. They are one of the world’s great foods. Go to New Mexico in the fall during the chile harvest and you’ll smell them roasting over fires in rotating baskets outside businesses and in the neighborhoods. It smells almost as good as Evergreen, Alabama. I had them for every meal except when the junior attorneys and paralegals were revolting — I mean when they would revolt. I mounded green chiles on enchiladas, over eggs, in Navajo tacos (fried mutton and green chiles over fry bread), and, finally getting to the point, in green chile cheeseburgers.

I have purchased tin after tin of green chiles outside of New Mexico. I’ve grown my own green chiles. I’ve had them in restaurants all over the US. Nowhere can green chiles approach those of New Mexico. Colorado comes closest, but New Mexico holds the crown. Sit back now, and read a local report from two different approaches to the delicacy.

Any serious discussion about green chile cheeseburgers should probably start and end with The Owl Bar and Cafe south of Socorro, NM.

They haven’t changed their recipe since 1945 and the era in which they hosted strangely-intelligent “prospectors” from the Los Alamos area, people with names like Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Teller. There’s been no reason for any recipe change, as a visit will confirm.

However, it would seem boring to give Owl the ‘Best Green Chile Cheeseburger’ award for 70+ years in a row, so we reluctantly turn our attention elsewhere.

If you happen to find yourself in Capitan, NM, far from any place out-of-staters might recognize, you’ll be able to count your blessings because you’ll be able to visit the Oso Grill. They just won their third ‘Best Green Chile Cheeseburger’ award, and it’s well-deserved. 

Oso’s approach differs from Owl’s in levels of subtlety. The Owl burger is incredibly thin and flavorful, and the experience is incomplete without the extras and bun. Oso’s burger is a lot thicker. The experience is all about the burger itself, albeit with green chile strips as welcome distractions. Not to be outdone, Oso brands the bun with the familiar zia symbol. Also, they wow with delicious home-made chips.

To close, we return to the Owl. An ideal time to go there is right after seeing the sand hill cranes each November at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It’s right off of Interstate 25 two hours south of Albuquerque. The cranes are wonderfully cacophonous, and we even saw javelinas this year.

I went to the Owl Bar during our lawsuit and follow up against Socorro County, home of the Ramah Navajo Chapter, a long drive south and west of Albuquerque. I can’t remember ever eating in Socorro. I probably had some Nabs and lots of burnt coffee. But I did drive down to the Owl Bar for the odd green chile cheeseburger. It was well worth the drive. The Owl is more of a bar than a cafe, and a warm and inviting one. After a green chile cheeseburger and a beer there you really want to have another of each, and … just escape from other lawyers. But it’s a long drive back to Albuquerque, and at least at that time, based on an informal billboard review, the major industry in Albuquerque seemed to be litigating traffic accidents and defending against DUI charges. The local overnight options were the Lazy Dog and Jake’s Place, either of which might attract attention on a travel voucher. The better part of valor always won, and I’d drive back to Albuquerque, warmed by the memory of a great green chile cheeseburger.

The Owl and Oso are a long way from anywhere except each other. They more or less flank White Sands National Park, the wildlife refuge, and the Trinity Site, the location of the first atomic bomb test. (That’s what attracted the strangely intelligent prospectors.) It’s a drive of a tad more than an hour from Oso to Owl, so you could easily test them back to back during your trip. You really should, and let me know which you prefer.

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