Follow the fire along New Mexico's Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail
(September 21, 2011)
Shortly before 6 a.m. on July 16, 1945, scientists detonated the first atomic bomb just 35 miles from the dusty crossroads of San Antonio, where she lived behind the family saloon and grocery store.
"There was a cousin of mine visiting from Albuquerque, and she thought it was the end of the world, so she pushed us under the bed," Baca recalled of the test that would help bring World War II to a close a month later. "The whole world was, like, red, like the sun rising but about 6 million times brighter."
The scientists who developed the top-secret bomb had been staying in cabins rented from Baca's grandfather, J.E. Miera.
Describing themselves as "prospectors," the men frequented Miera's Owl Bar and Cafe for cold beer and warm cheeseburgers. As the weeks passed, Baca's father, Frank Chavez, started topping the burgers with fiery-hot diced green chili peppers. Unwittingly, he had invented what is now a New Mexico culinary delight: the green chili cheeseburger.
Now, in communities throughout the Land of Enchantment, variations on Chavez's cheeseburger can be enjoyed. There is even an official Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail to help visitors taste their way across the state. In New Mexico, by the way, many spell it "chile," despite the dictionary.
The savory cheeseburgers, as well as changing and colorful scenery, can be found while traveling all or part of New Mexico's nearly 500-mile stretch of Interstate Highway 25, from where it crosses the mountains at Raton, near the Colorado border, to the wide-open barrens of the Chihuahuan Desert, just north of the Mexican border.
The 225-mile portion between Albuquerque and Las Cruces provides plenty of dining options, the Owl included, plus an opportunity to see where the zesty peppers are grown.
Chili-cheeseburger choices abound in Albuquerque, the state's largest city and home to many eateries on the official trail.
One of the smallest but also one of the best of them opened in February 2010 in the city's West Mesa neighborhood. Lumpy's Burgers is a drive-in reminiscent of old Route 66, along which it is located. With no indoor seating, there are just a few tables and chairs in the parking lot. Patrons use crayons to mark on paper bags what size burger they want (Wimpy, Lumpy or Plumpy) and desired toppings. The choices, of course, include eye-watering, grilled green chilies and a mouth-watering slab of melted cheddar. If fries are wanted, customers pick their own potatoes from a large box next to the counter.
"We make the food to order," explained cook Brandon Lidy as a quarter-pounder sizzled on the grill behind him. "It's all nice, fresh and hot. If you want a super-well-done burger, it's going to be well done. If you want it rare, we'll do it rare."
About 90 miles to the south — the time passes quickly at the posted 75 mph — sits San Antonio. As a historic marker points out, the town was the childhood home of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, whose father ran A.H. Hilton Mercantile, a combination tavern and general store, in the early 20th century.
When fire destroyed the store in 1945, all that was salvaged was the 25-foot solid mahogany bar. It now graces the Owl Bar and Cafe, having been purchased by current owner Baca's father. Visitors come from around the world.
Baca still can be found welcoming guests or working in the kitchen 15 hours a day. When mealtime rolls around, green chilies are a staple.
"Chili has to go on everything: hamburgers, eggs, potatoes, (and even) soup," she said.
Without a doubt, chilies are habit-forming, thanks to the capsaicin they contain. That's the active ingredient in pepper spray.
"(Researchers) have proven that it's addictive," noted Jo Lytle, co-owner of the Hatch Chile Express. "It gives us the little oomph that we like, the pizazz that we like in our food. It releases all the endorphins in your body. It gives you that natural high and makes you feel good."
Situated about 80 miles from the border between Mexico and New Mexico, the town of Hatch calls itself the chili capital of the world. Here, a cross-border battle is raging, as Americans fight to have only locally grown produce labeled as "Hatch chilies."
"You can have a hands-on taste test. You can tell the difference in the flavor of the Hatch chili as opposed to the chili coming out of Mexico," Marcia Nordyke, the mayor's wife, asserted with pride. "We would have a much bolder flavor."
Each Labor Day weekend, Hatch's population of 1,670 swells tenfold during the town's annual chili festival, timed to coincide with the harvesting of the green chilies that grow in nearby fields, irrigated by water from the Rio Grande. In addition to permanent fixtures, such as Lytle's shop, its roof covered with drying red chilies, a bounty of roadside stands pop up to sell produce, salsa and other homemade delights.
Lytle noted that chili peppers are members of the tomato family. Worldwide, there about 800 varieties, including about 40 grown in the Hatch Valley.
She added that chilies, like their cousins, can be picked green or, later in the growing season, red.
"The heat doesn't diminish (when they're red)," she said, "but it gets a little sweeter flavor."
The Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail (newmexico.org/greenchilecheeseburger) is a creation of the New Mexico Tourism Department and lists the most popular restaurants as chosen by state residents, who consider themselves cheeseburger connoisseurs. The website contains historical and cultural information, along with an interactive map of selected eateries statewide.
They include the Owl Bar and Cafe (505-835-9946) at 77 U.S. Highway 380 in San Antonio and the lesser-known Lumpy's Burgers (505-833-1300, lumpysburgers.com) at 5420 Central Ave. SW (Historic Route 66) in Albuquerque. The Hatch Chile Express (575-267-3226, hatch-chile.com) sells products in-store and by mail order. The website for the Hatch Chile Festival (hatchchilefest.com) includes recipes featuring green chilies.