Sunday, January 2, 2011

On the Trail . . .

of the ultimate green chile cheeseburger.

“No state is more passionate about its burger than New Mexico. A juicy thick patty grilled over an open flame or sizzled on a griddle, then blanketed in molten Cheddar or other cheese, and topped off with enough New Mexican green chile to tingle the taste buds—what could be more glorious?

“The green chile cheeseburger has been a staple on menus here since the middle of the last century. Burgers gained in popularity during the glory years of American road travel, when the asphalt ribbon Route 66 bisected New Mexico from west to east.... The fiery burger’s early esteem was fueled by decades-old burger hotspots like The Owl Café and Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio (NM), Burt’s Burger Bowl in Santa Fe, Bobcat Bite just outside of Santa Fe, and Blake’s Lotaburger’s original Albuquerque location” (from

So today finds us taking I-25 north from Las Cruces about thirty-five miles, through the Border Patrol checkpoint (Why do I always want to respond to the agents asking if we are U.S. citizens by saying, “Si, Senor?”), to the small town of Hatch, NM, the Chile Capital of the World. Our lunch destination was Sparky’s BBQ & Burgers, one of the four dozen restaurants listed on the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

This was not our first trip to Hatch. We made a road trip last spring from Las Cruces to eat at the Pepper Pot which we had seen on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” on the Travel Channel (see blog of 3/4/10). And, in that blog, we showed you some of the giant pieces of “roadside art” used to advertize the business. (I don't know if Yogi was planning to join the other giants or just passing through town.)

“In the works for more than 20 years, Sparky’s was born from one couple’s combined dream. Josie Nunn’s love of design and handcrafted coffee, and her husband Teako’s desire to make exceptional wood-fired barbeque and made-from-scratch green chili cheese-burgers.... In 2008 Sparky’s was born! Josie had her opportunity to make a beautiful and whimsical restaurant....

“Teako started his barbeque lessons on an old ammonia tank converted into a smoker over 20 years ago. Practicing all the time, Teako became a certified Kansas City Barbeque Society BBQ Judge and finally took a whirlwind barbeque tour through nine World Famous BBQ Joints in and around the hills of Austin Texas...” (from the restaurant’s web site).

Whimsical doesn’t begin to describe Sparky’s. One wall sports a massive stuffed moose head decorated for the Christmas holidays (photo above). Above the main dining room door is a paper mache mask of Alfred E. Neuman, whose face graced all but a few of the 500 issues of Mad Magazine and whose signature phrase was “What, me worry?”. Another wall holds two Chinese Checkers game boards. And old advertising signs can be seen wherever you look.

Sparky’s is another of those order-at-the-counter-and-pay-before-finding-a-seat kind of places.

The menu, posted on the wall near the entrance, sticks to the basics. You can order a green chile cheeseburger; a green chile chicken sandwich; or BBQ brisket, sausage or pulled pork sandwiches. You can order the half-pound BBQ plate with the choice of one or two meats (brisket, sausage, pulled pork, or ribs) with two sides or the three-quarter BBQ plate with all four meats and one side. There is the green chile meat burrito or “Teako’s Tacos” stuffed with BBQ meat. Sides are limited to fries, green chile fries, pineapple slaw, beans, and green chile creamed corn. Beverages include fountain sodas, iced tea, lemonade, shakes, and specialty coffees. Nothing fancy, but I suspect that it is all good.

The line was long that day and stayed long for the duration of our lunch.

From the vantage point of the cash register, you can see the cooks flipping burgers and constructing BBQ platters and sandwiches.

We started with an order of the sausage bites—rounds of good smoked sausage served with a cup of Teako’s homemade sauce. I thought the sauce was a bit on the sweet side but a glug of the Valentina Salsa Picante (Mexican hot sauce) that was on our table added the missing zing.

We had planned to share one green chile cheeseburger and one pulled pork sandwich, but as soon as we walked through the doors, Chuck turned and said: “I want my own whole cheeseburger (photo, above).” So it was two green chile cheese-burgers--his with fries and mine with the green chile creamed corn.

The fries were good—battered and lightly seasoned, crunchy on the outside and moist and steamy inside. The creamed corn tasted as if they had smoked the ears of corn and then scraped the kernels from the ears. The “cream” bore no resemblance to the stuff you get from a can, and I suspect it came from scraping the ears to extract the corn “milk.” And into this was mixed a hefty quantity of medium hot green chile pieces.

Now a question. What do you get when you take about a half pound of fresh and never-frozen ground beef, shape it into a patty, cook it over an open flame, top it with a slice of cheddar cheese, and then almost smother this with roasted Hatch green chiles? Answer: You get one of the best burgers ever.

While Bobcat Bite’s (Santa Fe) patty, at nine ounces, is larger, Sparky’s has that open-flame grilled flavor that cannot be duplicated. I ordered mine medium rare, Chuck ordered his medium. Both were perfect. The juices ran into the waxed paper lined basket or ran down your arm with each bite. The sign of a great burger. And the medium hot chiles supplied just enough heat and just enough flavor that additional condiments weren’t needed.

Now for something really outrageous—the chile mango shake. Yes, you read that right. The soft serve vanilla ice cream base was blended with mangos and dried powdered guajillo chiles. (Wikipedia describes guajillos as having a “thin, deep-red flesh…a green tea flavor with berry overtones. Its fruits are large and mild in flavor, with only a small amount of heat [rating 2,500 to 5,000 on the Scoville scale].”) These guajillos are devious devils. You start eating and don’t recognize any chile flavor or heat. About half way through, the back of your throat and nose begin feeling a light burn that intensifies until the glass is empty. Sweet and spicy, it was the perfect mouth cooling finish to the meal.

On the way out the door, I ordered a pound of the pulled pork to take home. This was a very good decision. The meat was tender, juicy, and moderately smoky and, best yet, came with a large proportion of “barky” chunks.

I love this place. And how can you not love a place with giant figures perched on the roof? I am sure you are not surprised that we give Sparky’s BBQ & Burgers the full 5.0 Addie treatment.

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