…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 nmgastronome.com—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” (cibolabeacon.com). 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?’…” (nmgastronome.com).
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…” (cheese-burger.net).
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 tronome.com).
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 wehaveeatenwell.com: “…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.