A great version of Santa Fe's famous Green Chile Cheeseburger
In July 2009, practically overnight, the Green Chile Cheeseburger became a national foodie obsession in America. That's the month that Bobby Flay's macho-burger challenge to the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, N.M., aired on the Food Network. Truth be told, Flay had his East Coast butt whipped by local New Mexico burger master Bobby Olguin. But the real winner was the Green Chile Cheeseburger itself, which suddenly took on nearly mythic proportions across the country as the rodeo food of the cowboy gods.
The GCCB -- actually arising in the American southwest in the 1950s, but off the national foodie radar for decades -- was born just as the American road, and as American road food, were gaining new importance. Hamburger joints everywhere were finding novel ways to lure in newly-minted motorists, and the southwest's strategy was logical. New Mexico, with its vaunted Hatch chiles, is the green chile capital of the U.S. -- so why shouldn't some enterprising café owner throw some green capsicums on a cheeseburger? No one knows who it was exactly that did it first -- but you have various GCCB historians debating Burt's Burger Bowl in Santa Fe, Bobcat Bite near Santa Fe, the original location of Blake's Lotaburger in Albuquerque, and, of course, the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio.
For my money, the best of them all is found at a practically unknown dive café just on the edge of Santa Fe: Horseman's Haven Café. It does not appear in national news stories, like the others; I found it only by talking to local eaters, and convincing them I wasn't too snooty to love this place.
I wasn't, and I do. For me, Horseman's Haven Café avoids the "problems" that are plaguing the now ultra-famous world of the Green Chile Cheeseburger.
For one thing, the dish is kind of a marketing sensation. If you've been griddling up a cheeseburger at your diner for decades... why not hop on the buzz-driven bandwagon, drop a few capsicum slices on your bun, and become a GCCB proselyte? Little extra work, lots of extra sales. The problem is they often don't put on enough green chile to make a difference!
Others are OK on the green-chile ratio, but hand over most of the glamour to the other add-ons: tomatoes, lettuce, pickle, oozy sauces. The Buckhorn Tavern, I'm told, makes a terrific version of the "loaded" GCCB... but I like my GCs to be front and center in my GCCB.
Then you'll find the joints that put the emphasis on the burger itself -- a quality-minded practice that's hard to argue with. Except when it comes to Green Chile Cheeseburgers. The Santa Fe burger getting the greatest national press, the one at Bobcat Bite, does have its virtues. They grind the beef fresh, every day. They stack it into a thick, burly burger, which they will cook to exactly your degree of doneness -- the rare one is beautiful -- on a 50-year-old griddle that turns out a genuinely beefy-buttery taste. But here's the great pushback: If you're going to make a super-dense burger the base of your green chile cheeseburger, it makes sense that the finished product has to be even MORE cheesed and chiled! And the Bobcat bun's a little too thick, dulling the chile-cheese effect still further. Ratios are everything! I'd go back to Bobcat Bite -- the old-time setting in the middle of nowhere is priceless -- but only if I don't have chiles and cheese on my mind.
And then... there's Horseman's Haven Cafe, way the heck out of Santa Fe on Cerrillos Road, practically past the big town. It is right next to a gas station; in fact, it seems part of the gas station. The diners are extremely local as are the servers, giving rise now and then to a few communication problems with Anglos like me. None of this matters. The servers are lovely; the place is busy, clean, efficient, serves drinks the size of your head... and the GCCB will blow your mind.
First, you must understand that this establishment, unlike the others, is mostly a New Mexican restaurant, open every day from 8 until 8. It is a burrito-enchilada-quesadilla place, not shy or inexperienced in slinging the two chile sauces (green and red) that are at the heart of every New Mexican meal.
Did you think the slinging would stop when someone orders a Green Chile Cheeseburger? (Which, by the way, is not exactly named as such on the menu. But don't worry: Just ask for it.)
What made me swoon, initially, was the size of the damned thing on its platter -- not the burger itself, but the territory it occupies with its partners. The platter arrives with two extremely large hamburger bun halves, each open-faced, clinging to the plate for traction. Sort of centered on one of them is a beautiful griddle-browned hamburger, not very thick, glistening with the good stuff that, for the sake of the delicate, I hesitate to refer to as "grease." Spooned over the very spot where the two buns meet is an insane amount --insanely gooey -- of green chile sauce mixed with yellow blobs of cheese. Taste the sauce (because Lord knows you can't avoid it). Oh my God! This tastes like green chile!
Now take a deep breath. Clasp those two bun halves, messy as they may be, and surround your griddleburger with them. If you care about your shirt, raise them in a gingerly fashion to your ingestion unit; if you don't care, just shovel that thang in your mouth. The buns are insubstantial but perfect; the beef has an excellent griddle taste, though you can't rate it above the beef at the other places; but the burger environment -- ah! the environment! -- is soft, wet, humid, cheesy, chile-y, a veritable hothouse of Green Chile Cheeseburgerness. You may wonder why you should eat anything else.
If there was ever a reason to put together chiles, cheese and a burger, these people have found it. The Buckhorn style may have its backyard-barbecue kind of appeal, and the Bobcat may get the beef lobby... but this place feels like New Mexico to me.
Overkill Department: If you're one of those hardcore chileheads who gets an extra charge from extra Scoville units -- once again, you have come to the right place! Yes, the basic GCCB at Horseman's Haven Café has a real good basic burn to it. But the menu offers something called Level #2 Green Chile (for two bucks) -- which is a small side dish of green chile sauce that may require you to pre-arrange a cemetery for yourself in Santa Fe. The chileheads with me during this transformative meal all agreed: This is one of the hottest chile sauces served anywhere in the world, and it maintains its capsicum flavor. I recommend you get it, just for its extremity... and that, if your heart is strong, you drizzle the thinnest imaginable thread of it along your sauce-topped GCCB.
Hey, listen... I'm all for those beautiful mounds of ground beef that are popping up all over Santa Fe. But my vote can't be bought by great sirloin: in a Green Chile Cheeseburger, it is the gestalt that matters. Horsemen's Haven Café just happens to dish up the most green chiles... and the most gestalt, by far.
Follow David Rosengarten on Twitter: www.twitter.com/d_rosengarten