The San Antonio NM burger war: Owl Bar & Cafe vs. Buckhorn Tavern

The small hamlet of San Antonio, New Mexico is a Mecca for burger-lovers. Its other claim to fame: it was the birthplace of hotelier Conrad Hilton. This town of 165 people, according to the 2010 Census, doesn’t’ have just one burger joint, it has two and they’re both icons in the world of burgers. The Owl Bar & Cafe and Buckhorn Tavern each have their fans and detractors. Their unofficial competition has been going on for decades.

 The Owl Bar & Cafe

The Owl Bar & Cafe, San Antonio NM

The west side of the Owl Bar & Cafe, photo/Steve Collins

The Owl was on our radar first. We ate there in 2008 on our way to see the sandhill cranes in their winter habitat at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a bit south of San Antonio. Ambiance is pure bar here with no frills. The walls are covered with dollar bills that patrons have hung up over the years. People write their names (and sometimes messages) on them before hanging. The café was opened in 1945 by Frank and Dee Chavez in her father grocery store. Today, their granddaughter, Rowena Baca, runs the legendary establishment. The story of the funky café’s origins in the days of the Manhattan Project is detailed in this fascinating post by food writer Jason Sheehan on Salon.com.

Green chile cheeseburgerger at Owl Bar & Cafe

The Owl’s green chile cheeseburger, photo courtesy Gil Garduño, Gil’s Thrilling (and filling) Blog

According to Gil Garduño in his wonderful foodie site Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog, the Owl got its name “because legal gambling was conducted at all hours of the night in the back of the restaurant, ergo by ‘night owls’.’” The juicy hand-formed burgers are cooked to order and come with lettuce, tomato, pickles and chopped onions. Cheese and green chile are extra, but totally the point here. Chile can be a bit hot, but not killer. If you have a gringo palate, order it on the side. Of course we ordered the green chile cheeseburgers with fries and onion rings on the side. We loved them.

Buckhorn Tavern

Buckhorn Tavern San Antonio NM

The sign on the dor at Buckhorn Tavern, photo/Steve Collins

We stopped at the Buckhorn Tavern on our way to Truth of Consequences in March 2014. According to the rustic eatery’s loquacious owner, Bobby Olguin, the business was started by his grandfather across the road from its current location during Prohibition. Moonshine, he confided, was made in the cellar. The tavern moved to its current location in 1943. Before the war, the portly burger chef says, San Antonio was a thriving town, home to at least four or five coal mines and according to Sheehan’s post, undercover Manhattan Project scientists. After the war, the mines shut down and the village became a bit of a ghost town. Years ago there were gas pumps outside and pool tables inside. Bobby Olguin’s the third generation of his family to run the business. Burgers are made from 80% lean beef for its fat content, cheese is American and chile is from the farm stand down the road in season and Albuquerque’s Bueno (and other New Mexico frozen chile purveyors the rest of the year). Lettuce, tomato pickles and mustard complete the burger.

 

Breen chile cheeseburger at Buckhorn Tavern

Buckhorn Tavern’s iconic green chile cheeseburger, photo/Steve Collins

In 2005, the national attention started. Buckhorn’s burger was named lucky number seven on GQ’s The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die. The Food Network followed in 2009 when celebrity chef Bobby Flay of Throwdown with Bobby Flay showed up in town to throw down the gauntlet for best green chile cheeseburger. Subsequent media attention has included the New York Times and Sunset Magazine. Olguin even had his own local TV show, New Mexico’s Hot Chefs for a year.

Buckhorn Tavern San Antonio NM

Buckhorn Taver’s Bobby Olguin in comverstaion, photo/Steve Collins

The competition continues. In August 2007, both the Owl and Buckhorn made Sunset Magazine’s Top 77 road food spots. Both have a spot on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. According to Gil Garduño you can’t go wrong with either. There was too much time between our tastings for us to be able to compare. Our plan: next time we go through San Antonio, get a burger to go from each to go and blind taste them. We may reach Garduño’s conclusion. All we can say is no matter which one you choose, you get a lot of history and a great burger. Which one is better? You make the call.

Have you had a San Antonio NM Burger? Which is your fave?

Author’s note: San Antonio is Exit 139 on I-25, south of Soccoro.

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38 Responses to “The San Antonio NM burger war: Owl Bar & Cafe vs. Buckhorn Tavern”

  1. Patti
    January 12, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    That is one good-looking burger! 😉

    • Billie Frank
      January 12, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

      Which one? There are two. Both are good. Each place seems to have its loyal fans.

  2. Sean
    January 16, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    We stopped in the Owl Bar & Cafe YEARS ago on a swing through New Mexico and Arizona. I still remember that burger! Didn’t know about the Buckhorn Tavern (maybe it wasn’t there then), so my vote is for the Owl. But always willing to go back to give the competition a fair shot.

    • Billie Frank
      January 16, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed your Owl burger. The Buckhorn Tavern’s been there since the 1940a. All you had to do was look across the road and to the right.

  3. Karen
    January 17, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    Enjoyed the Buckhorn Burger two days ago–yum! Old-school GCCB goodness!

    • Billie Frank
      January 17, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

      Wish I’d been there. The thought of these gets my salivary glands going!

  4. Irene S. Levine
    January 19, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    Haven’t had either of these but there is nothing better than a good burger! These look great~

    • Billie Frank
      January 19, 2015 at 1:18 pm #

      And nothing beats a green chile cheeseburger IMO> You’ll have to come back to Santa Fe!

  5. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    January 19, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    I’d love to try both of these burgers and give you an opinion! We’re also big fans of green chilies. Mmm!

  6. A Cook Not Mad (Nat)
    January 19, 2015 at 10:07 am #

    Well that looks delicious!

  7. Jerome Shaw
    January 19, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    I should have read this post after lunch – I am headed out to find a reasonable facsimile to the Owl’s Green Chili Cheeseburger here in Denver. Thanks for whetting my appetite.

    • Billie Frank
      January 19, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

      I love Brother’s Burgers in Denver. I’d head there in a heartbeat!

  8. Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    January 19, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    The Owl, The Buckhorn, looks like you can’t go wrong at either with a green chili cheeseburger.

  9. noel
    January 19, 2015 at 11:47 am #

    I’m in burger heaven, those look so juicy and yummy, can I have one to go please?

    • Billie Frank
      January 19, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

      I want one, too. The good news is we have some great green chile cheeseburgers in Santa Fe.

  10. The GypsyNesters
    January 19, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    They both look great, but the Owl burger looks just a little better to me. Although once the green chili makes an appearance, nothing else matters.

    • Billie Frank
      January 19, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

      I agree about the green chile. We have to go back and try both side by side to see which we prefer. We ate them too many years apart.

  11. Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)
    January 19, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    Yum post! I’d love to try one of those green chile burgers. I think a return trip to Santa Fe is in order.

    • Billie Frank
      January 19, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

      Let us know! I always think a trip to Santa Fe is in order.

  12. Nancie (@Ladyexpat)
    January 19, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

    Both look amazingly good. It would have to be a showdown. One burger tasting on a Monday, and one on a Tuesday. Winner announced on Wednesday; unless of course there was a tie. Then I’d have to start all over again! 🙂

    • Billie Frank
      January 20, 2015 at 2:44 pm #

      Next time we’re getting them to go and will take a bite from each while sitting in the car. That’s the only way we’ll really know!

  13. Sue Reddel
    January 19, 2015 at 9:40 pm #

    Looks like they have some really tasty burgers.

  14. Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    January 19, 2015 at 11:58 pm #

    Ya gotta love a bar where you can hang a dollar bill from the ceiling! My kinda place. Maybe not so many chiles though. 🙂

    • Billie Frank
      January 20, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

      Just tell them to hold the chiles- not everyone loves the heat, but if you can stand it- there’s nothing like a green chile cheeseburger.

  15. Patti Morrow
    January 22, 2015 at 7:25 am #

    I’m not a “foodie traveler”… I’ll take a good burger any day. I love green chilies so these look great, especially the first one.

  16. Charles McCool
    January 23, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    Those burgers look amazing. I am now hungry and I just had breakfast! I have had green chile burgers in NM, but do not remember where. Must return!

    • Billie Frank
      January 23, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

      Absolutely! There’s no burger like a NM green chile cheeseburger at the right restaurant.

  17. Kami golden
    March 5, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    The buckhorn is better we think. We have eaten at both places within a couple of days of each other while passing through to albuerque and back.

    • Billie Frank
      March 5, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback. We have to get back down there and taste both at the same time.

  18. Doug
    May 17, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

    Finally was able to stop on a trip and try the Buckhorn. Awesome burger. Will be going through there again tomorrow, and even though it will be tough not to stop there again, we will try the Owl. There is another place that I feel it’s famous for their green chili cheese burger is in Hatch NM. It’s called Sparky’s. Will be tough to decide which one will be the best.

    • Billie Frank
      May 18, 2016 at 7:48 pm #

      Good to give them both a try. We goofed. We went to Sparky’s because we wanted BBQ- didn’t know they were famous for their green chile cheeseburgers. Now we have to go back-lol.

  19. Suzanne Castillo Devlin
    July 14, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

    I’ve only had a green chile cheeseburger at The Buckhorn Tavern but will be doing my annual pilgrimage to Santa Fe in early October so I’ll be driving down to visit family and continue on to San Antonio to try The Owl Cafe’s cheeseburgers. I was born in Belen and been eating green chile burgers since 1949 at The Fiestas of Belen at my Aunt Ramona’s stand. My only complaint of The Buckhorn & apparently, The Owl cafe (based on the photo)is the use of shredded lettuce rather then full leaf lettuce. Though I was born in NM, I grew up in S. Calif. and the best green chile burger is In-N-Out Burgers. We simply have taken our green chile in a Baggie and add it to our burgers. Also, until about three years ago, there was a little shack in front of Jackalope on Cerillos in Santa Fe for years that made the best green chile burger I’ve ever had. In-N-Out doesn’t really serve green chile burgers so I give the top prize to this little shack that is now gone with the wind. I was heartbroken when I went there two years ago and they were no longer in business. Thousand Island dressing like In-N-Out makes them would improve both The Buckhorn Tavern and The Owl Bar & Cafe and every other burger joint. Also whole leaf lettuce. Lots of it like In-N-Out makes them. And no, I don’t work for In-N-Out. I’ve just been eating there since 1950 or so.

    • Billie Frank
      July 19, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

      Enjoy The Owl. October is such a great time to visit here. I think The Owl uses shredded as well. Maybe if you ask them they can do yours with an intact leaf. That’s great that you BYO green chile to In-N-Out. We tried them in AZ once and were disappointed- maybe we need to try them in CA. Not a fan of Thousand Island on burgers and I don’t think that will fly in NM where if anything, mustard is kind- but as with the green chile in CA, bring your own or they might even havee some in the kitchen. The shack in front of Jacklope was Jarochos and they now have a restaurant in the lower level of 112 West San Francisco- can’t remember the name at the moment- but it’s the same people or was a few months ago when we were there.

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