Thursday, February 28, 2013

“Home of the Laguna Burger”

…the billboard read. “3.99.”

We have passed this billboard on I-40 many times on our way from downtown Albuquerque to our RV park. And I thought that the Route 66 logo in the left bottom corner indicated that said Laguna Burger was to be found at the Route 66 Casino about seven miles up the road. And the $3.99 price? I was sure that should I get close enough, I would find “*With Player’s Club Card.”

But we learned in a chance conversation between Chuck and a camp worker that, no, the Laguna Burger was not found at the casino but at the 66 Pit Stop just across the road from the casino and that the Pit Stop served one mean green chile cheeseburger. A quick on-line consultation with my guru of all things culinary Albuquerque—Gil Garduno at—confirmed the camp worker’s opinion.

The Laguna Burger got its start at a Conoco station/superette near the Laguna reservation (near Grants, NM) “where freshly ground beef was always available. Locals could grab a quick lunch for a small price and be on their way with one of the county's best kept secrets…. (T)his restaurant serves one of the best green chile cheeseburgers in the country. The half-pound beef patty is never frozen and made to order. Fries are never frozen and made from fresh-cut potatoes. The customer service is incredible, and the employees are always friendly” ( And, from there, the Laguna Burger has moved eastward to just outside the western city limits of Albuquerque.

The 66 Pit Stop is part gas station, part convenience store, part café, and part souvenir stand. As you enter, the cash register is just ahead surrounded by displays of Native American jewelry. To the left are shelves containing enough snack food items to sate even the most severe case of the munchies. To the right are shelves containing all the Route 66 knicknacks your heart might desire.

And one shelf contained, for no discernable reason, a Fred and Wilma Flintstone cookie jar.

But it is along the back wall that magic happens. “Though the Home of the Laguna Burger is tiny…the aromas of beef on a flattop grill waft throughout…like an olfactory siren’s call.

After perusing the menu…and placing your order, you actually pay the bill of fare…at the…cash registers, the same ones in which you’d pay for gas or Twinkies. Next you pull up a bar stool and watch the green chile cheeseburger being lovingly prepared for you. Yes, lovingly! The shirts worn by the staff are emblazoned with the slogan, ‘Is it the beef or is it the love?’…” (

66 Pit Stop’s menu includes a foot-long hot dog, foot-long chile cheese dog, jumbo corn dog, chicken tenders, grilled cheese, and Frito pie. But it is really all about the hamburger. Especially the Laguna Burger with cheese, green chile, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and mustard. “There are conflicting stories about who first took the basic cheeseburger and added the locally-plentiful peppers to ratchet up the smoky spiciness. But every diner and burger joint in the state jumped on the chuck wagon, and now, grabbing a green chile cheeseburger in the Land of Enchantment is as much a must-do experience as chowing on a cheesesteak in Philly or diving into a deep-dish pie in Chicago…. How seriously do they take the green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico? When a San Antonio, NM hotspot trounced Food Network cover boy Bobby Flay on his own ‘Throwdown’ show, the governor saluted the winners by declaring ‘Buckhorn Tavern Day’ statewide…” (

While Chuck remained a purist (cheese and raw onion only), I went full bore. “… Each burger is prepared to order; the Laguna Burger is not fast food. At strategic intervals in the grilling process, the green chile (Bueno brand) is placed on the grill where it sizzles and spits as in protest. The cheese is added later (Ed Note: to the flattop surface) to ensure just the right level of meltedness…. The beef patty is juicy and delicious at about medium-well.
The vegetables are fresh…. The green chile…was piquant enough to get my attention. It’s delicious through and through, so good you’ll want another, but so large you might not have the room. That’s especially true if you also order the fresh-cut, never frozen French fries. The fries, shades of gold and brown, are neither too flaccid nor too stiff. They’re fries the way they should be made” (nmgas

There were three factors that made this a memorable green chile cheeseburger. First, as Gil stated above, these were not wimpy green chiles. In fact, they packed a lot of heat. The other two are described at “…Two things really made that burger, to me. The buttered bun—I’ve had other burgers that have buttered buns, but I haven’t had them toasted so perfectly like this one. Not soggy, not burned, and the bun was just the right consistency. Not too bready, but not too skimpy. The other thing is that the burger patty itself was PERFECTLY cooked, with lots of crispy charred edges, and somehow it was juicy even though it was cooked all the way through.”

I usually prefer my hamburgers medium rare or at least medium. But I wouldn’t have changed a thing here. It was that extra degree of doneness that produced the crusty exterior and the little bits of nearly—but not quite—burned edges that tasted like beef reduced down to its essence. While Chuck with his basic cheeseburger did not have the extra flavor imparted by the green chiles, he enjoyed his no less than did I mine.

Being big spenders, we opted for the “meal” that included fries and beverage for $5.99. I was somewhat less excited by the fries than was Gil but the Laguna burger made up for anything the fries were lacking.

We left asking ourselves “How come we haven’t found this before?” And we agreed that 66 Pit Stop’s burgers rank up there with some of the best we have eaten. Even better than those served at 5 Star Burger (also in Albuquerque) at twice—at least—the price. This was 5.0 Addie eating. And at a gas station.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sunsets, Sunrise

We end our stay in Tucson with three evenings of sunsets. I don't know if it's just a matter of the latitude of the southwestern states or whether there is a more complicated environmental or meteorological explanation, but the sunsets in Arizona and New Mexico seem to be consistently brilliant.

Evening 1--This sunset seemed to cover the entire horizon, and in a few minutes,

a large portion of the sky was a brilliant orange.

Evening 2--This sunset had a modest beginning, but because of the clouds, I thought the potential for a beautiful one was there.

I was not disappointed.

The speck in the lower half of the photo below is a helicopter. What a view the pilot must have had.

Evening 3--I was drawn to the number and colors of the different bands in this sunset.

Even moving to a different location, I was still able to enjoy the many bands of color

Morning 1--I wanted to add one sunrise just to compare morning's brilliance with that of the evening's in the Southwest.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Rewarding Adventure

Some travels have a planned destination, others are "adventures" with no specific route or end point.

It was on one of these adventures that we came across this gleaming white structure, Santa Cruz Catholic Church, in an area of small businesses on the south side of Tucson.

The architecture of the church seemed to draw upon at least two different styles, but in the absence of any information about the church or its history, we were left with admiring the exterior and wondering about the history.

While we did not see anyone working around the church, it was clear that the exterior was well-maintained.

We wanted to view the inside of the church, and, fortunately, it was open.

I sometimes think that being alone in a church enables a person to think more about the reason for being there than when it is filled with other worshippers, whose appearances, behaviors, and conversations draw attention from one's contemplation.

The quiet beauty of the stained glass windows seemed to promote quiet thought.

When I reached this point in my writing, I made one more search, and rather than rewrite this entry, I decided to add the information here.

Information on the National Register Nomination Summary Sheet stated that "Santa Cruz was built in 1919 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style with Islamic nuances, including a minaret-like bell tower. The building has mud-adobe bearing walls, with burned brick used at the more vulnerable parapets and bell tower. All masonry is uniformly plastered and painted white.

"A small dome was added above the altar when the latter was added ca. 1940. The site is surrounded by an adobe compound wall, approximately six feet in height.

"Santa Cruz is the largest (known and extant) mud-adobe building in Arizona and the only surviving example of adobe used in the construction of a major public building.

"Spanish Carmelite priests serve a primarily Hispanic-American congregation" (http://tdotmaps.

A rewarding adventure--even before learning about the destination.

Monday, February 25, 2013

It Seems Like Just Yesterday…

that I wrote about our lunch at La Terraza at Hacienda del Sol. In fact, it was just yesterday. How long did you think I would wait before trying the buffalo chorizo Eggs Benedict at The Grill at Hacienda del Sol?

“Since its opening in 1997, The Grill at the Hacienda del Sol has attracted overnight guests and Tucsonans alike. Over the past ten years, The Grill has held a place on Wine Spectator’s ‘Best of’ Award for excellence. Recently, the restaurant was bestowed with Wine Enthusiast’s ‘Award of Ultimate Distinction,’ making it the only Arizona restaurant to be honored with the award. An extensive list of wines is offered, featuring over 2,000 labels and 25,000 bottles.

“’It’s a world class restaurant. It attracts people from everywhere. They come here because of the Grill,’ Jeff Timan, owner of the resort, said. The Grill’s head chef, Ramiro Scavo, competed in and won Tucson’s Iron Chef….

“The Grill sets itself apart from other restaurants in Tucson by using ingredients from their on-site garden in their dishes. Aside from its fresh ingredients, one of the major attractions to the Grill is its romantic nature. It currently holds the title of ‘Tucson’s Most Romantic Dining.’

“’Oftentimes, when people come into town for conventions or other meetings, they stay in the larger resorts. Yet, when they ask for good restaurants in town, we are almost always one of the first choices,’ Firth said” (

The Grill serves as a formal counterpoint to the warmer and more casual La Terraza. The walls are covered with colorful modern art. The tables are set—even at breakfast—with white and maroon linens. (And you know that a place is upscale when, instead of paper towels, the ladies room has a basket of terry towels.)

And four lucky diners can reserve The Grill’s equivalent of a “chef’s table.”

Like the lunch/dinner menu at La Terraza, The Grill’s breakfast menu is not overly long. Among the selections are: Hacienda Yogurt Parfait, served with fresh berries, Greek yogurt, and granola; Steel-cut Oatmeal with seasonal berries, golden raisins, brown sugar, and a choice of whole or soy milk; Build Your Own Omelet—three eggs with a choice of three ingredients, including ham, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, or cheese and served with a side of fruit, new potatoes, toast, and bacon or sausage; and a Belgian Waffle with maple syrup and butter and bacon or sausage. And many of the items are also listed as sides allowing the diner to “make his own” breakfast.

And that is just what Chuck did. He built for himself the “Carb Loading Special.” Menu item Number One was the short stack of two pancakes. He is very picky when it comes to pancakes. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, there is nothing he dislikes more that the over use of baking powder to achieve pancake puffiness. Here there was none of that almost sour taste even though these cakes were extremely light. The stack was topped with cinnamon enhanced sliced apples and the cakes were accompanied by a small pitcher of warm real maple syrup.

Menu item Number Two was a side order of French toast containing two slices of thick bread (I suspect that it may have been challah, which is a Jewish bread made with lots of egg.) that had been dipped in a flavored batter and, after grilling, artistically drizzled with a tart berry syrup. There was a slightly spicy note to the egg batter and our server told us that may be from the paprika used as one of the seasonings. This was delicious. So delicious that I kept slicing small pieces from the plate. Hey, I have to do research, don’t I?

And menu item Number Three was a side of home fries. You knew that potatoes would figure here somewhere, didn’t you? They were cubes of red skin potatoes, lightly browned, and tossed with parsley. Pretty good and I am not a home fry person.

But now for my breakfast. It’s not that I don’t like traditional Eggs Benedict, but let’s face it, there are more interesting foods than ham or Canadian bacon. So whenever I see a substitute used for either, I am intrigued. Here, The Grill’s house-made buffalo chorizo was the substitute—although not the only one. But the chorizo was—as is buffalo meat in general—very lean and was not really spicy, but interestingly hot. The eggs were poached a perfect medium and the English muffin was toasted just enough not to become soggy, but yet not overly crisp. But the real kicker was the charred tomato and jalapeno hollandaise that tasted a bit spicy and a bit smoky. And, for once, there was enough hollandaise. I do so hate it when a restaurant is skimpy on the hollandaise. Here there was enough for me to coat each potato (the same as with Chuck’s order) before popping them into my mouth.

Next time we are in Tucson, we may have to try The Grill’s prix fixe Sunday brunch complete with prime rib carving station. But for now, we both enjoyed our 5.0 Addie breakfast.

To review the role of Adler and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

“It’s Your Birthday,”

I said to Chuck. “Where would you like to go for lunch?”

“This will be a good time to go to Hacienda del Sol,” he replied. And that is how we found ourselves celebrating on Terraza Garden Patio one beautiful day in early February. For those of you in more northerly climes, I don’t want to gloat, but the temps were in the low 70’s, the sky was brilliant blue, and there was just a hint of breeze. A perfect day for dining outside.

La Terraza is one of two restaurants at Hacienda del Sol.The other—The Grill—is fine dining and is open for breakfast and dinner. (The Grill will be the subject of a future blog.) La Terraza is “One of those rare places that focuses equally on bar and restaurant…an excellent, affordable option for getting that resort feel without the resort prices…. Terraza has an amazing garden patio, the kind of comfy place where you'll want to just sit…” (

“…A garden dining experience in the heart of the Foothills, Terraza Garden Patio & Lounge (is) surrounded by Joesler-designed architecture and blossoming gardens. Guests can nosh on appetizers in an alfresco setting–arguably the best patio dining in Tucson…. Terraza’s menu features appetizers, salads and specialties influenced by the flavors of the Southwest. Many of the ingredients are locally and regionally grown, including herbs and vegetables that are grown at Hacienda del Sol…” (

We were too early for the gardens to be blossoming, but I can imagine how beautiful the patio will be come spring. Since temperatures drop—sometimes rapidly—at night in the desert, a large fireplace stands in one corner to provide warmth when the weather is chilly. We learned from the young man serving as maître d'/manager that the fireplace originally burned wood but had recently been converted to gas. He was not pleased with the change.

The same menu serves for lunch and dinner and includes a reasonable number of appetizers, salads, and sandwiches. Since this was Chuck’s birthday, I let him choose the menu. Among the items that sounded interesting, but not ordered, were the Duck Rillette (“a preparation of meat similar to pâté…. (T)he meat is cubed or chopped, salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded, and then cooled with enough of the fat to form a paste” [].) that came with grilled crostini, gherkins, pickled onions, and whole grain mustard and the Salmon Cakes served with cured lemons, mint, tomato, Israeli cous-cous, olives, and tzatziki.

Instead, from the appetizers list, we chose the Sweet & Spicy Calamari served on a bed on cabbage with radishes, scallions, carrots, and sweet Thai chile sauce. While not visible in this photo, the shredded cabbage reminded both of us of the bed of crispy rice noodles that form the base of the Asian Shrimp served at Asian Noodle Bar in Albuquerque. And that was not the only reminder. The Thai chile sauce was also evocative of the Asian Shrimp, since a similar sauce is used in the latter’s preparation. And, as a surprise, nestled among the other components were some thin battered and fried jalapeno strips. And I should mention that the calamari were lightly battered, tender, and a mix of rings and tentacle pieces.

Now it may seem strange to be celebrating one’s birthday with salads, but that is just what we did. The first was the Chicken Topopo with chicken (obviously), romaine, tomato, red onion, black beans all sitting on a nest of tortilla chips and very lightly tossed with roasted tomato-cilantro vinaigrette.

The second was the Haricots Verts (thin French green beans) Salad with potatoes, egg, grape tomato halves, micro greens, and green and black olives again tossed in a light sherry-mustard vinaigrette.

Now if you like a lot of dressing on your salad, La Terraza is not the place for you. The dressing on both salads was so lightly applied that only a faint film was visible on the bottom of each plate when we finished. We like this, but others might be disappointed. And both dressings were low on the vinegar/acid scale. Do you ever watch Top Chef on Bravo? The three regular judges—Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons—are always crying out for more acid in the dishes they judge. No thanks. Make mine low acid, please.

We finished the meal with birthday cake—or cinnamon apple cheesecake, to be precise. This was delicious. Not overly sweet and the apples in the topping still retained a bit of crispness. The density of this cheesecake reminded me of the Italian-style that is made with both cream cheese and ricotta, but our server went to check with the kitchen for me and returned to say that it was made with cream cheese and crème fraîche. My only regret is that I forgot to bring along a birthday candle.

As we were finishing a 5.0 Addie lunch, we were talking with the maître d'/manager and he mentioned that his favorite dish on all of the Hacienda’s menus is the house-made buffalo chorizo eggs Benedict. Now I am a sucker for variations on eggs Benedict, so we immediately made plans for a return visit—this time to The Grill.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Much More Than a Restaurant

The search for a birthday meal took us to Hacienda del Sol Ranch Resort. We had driven to the foothills of the Catalina Mountain range on the outskirts of Tucson to this restaurant and found more that just a restaurant.

Before even thinking about the restaurant, we took time to admire the surrounding desert, the mountains, and the resort's landscaping.

Travel guides have described the Resort as a "32-acre hideaway" and "a charming and lower-price alternative to the larger resorts. Part guest ranch (there are riding stables down the road) and part resort, it's entirely gracious" (

To us, it seemed to be part desert park and part fine dining destination.

Our walk along the path to the restaurant took longer than expected given the short distance to travel, because the variety of cacti required further study.

We later learned that the landscape was designed by the world-renowned Dr. Andrew Weil, who constructed the 2,000 square-foot garden showcasing herbs, vegetable, fruits, and flowers. (Currently, Hacienda Del Sol’s gardens produce more than 70% of the herbs used for cooking at The Grill.)

The slow walk along this serene garden walkway set the stage for a leisurely lunch in a gracious setting.

As described on its webpage ( "Hacienda del Sol is a historic jewel. The story began in 1929, when John and Helen Murphey created Hacienda Del Sol; a desert retreat inspired by early Moorish architecture, with many personal touches crafted by the Murpheys themselves.

"The property was originally a "home away from home" ranch school for the daughters of society's elite families. The prestigious school's roster boasted names such as Vanderbilt, Pillsbury, Maxwell, Westinghouse, and Campbell, to name a few.

"In the late 1930's, renowned architect Josias Joesler was commissioned to rebuild and redesign sections of the ranch, adding his notable signature to many architectural details.

"In 1948, Hacienda Del Sol was converted into a guest ranch that immediately attracted the Silver Screen’s most popular stars. Legend has it that the Hacienda’s Casita Grande was a favorite romantic hideaway of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Leading men John Wayne and Clark Gable both signed their names to the hotel’s illustrious guestbook.

"The guest ranch was forgotten for some time…until 1995 when fate landed the secluded property into the loving hands of a group of Tucson investors. With the vision of returning the ranch to its original glory, the owners have continually renovated and renewed Hacienda del Sol with special care. In 1997, The Grill restaurant was opened and continues to be one of Arizona’s finest dining venues.

"In 1999, a major restoration of the hotel was completed, retaining and enhancing the original integrity of the architecture and landscape.

"Today, the story continues, with simple pleasures, understated elegance, and charming hospitality at this classic Arizona inn. 'The Soul of Tucson in the Heart of the Foothills' bespeaks the desire of its Tucson owners to nurture the beauty and authenticity of this special property.

"Hacienda del Sol is included in the National Registry of Historic Places in Arizona and is pleased to be a member of Historic Hotels of America."