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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.