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Petros was officially out—sorry Liz—; from the Wine Ghetto, we were committed to taking the winding drive down to the Jalama Beach Store for an authentic California burger experience. There was one slight hitch—my car wouldn’t start. A few turns of the ignition, nothing doing, and a fearful glance over at Kevin to test his patience, spying his eyes rolling back in a can-you-believe-this-sh@t kind of look. It was time to call on the generosity of Lee to help bail us out one more time. After the diagnosis he pulled up alongside and gave us a jump and directions to the nearest Auto Zone. Once the car was started we beelined it to H Street to swap out the battery and grab a snack to tide us over before our now late lunch.

It was a bucolic drive to the coast, even after adjusting for wildlife, when a doe would dart across the narrow lanes; it all seemed apt to our surroundings. Fourteen miles in we crossed the train tracks parallel to the ocean, which offered a pristine view of the coastline. A spot for Heull Howser, far enough away off the beaten track to be a mini-Shangri-la, Jalama reminded me of Laguna Beach where I grew up in Southern California, but even more untouched. We parked at the campsite, and communicated to the ranger we had come for burgers. He pointed us in the direction of the Store and we were on our way.

The breeze was intense near the shore, hurling a mixture of aromas like grilled meats and salty ocean spray that spiked our hunger. I was excited when I saw the signs boasting the “famous” burger.

We looked over the General Store before ordering, trying our best to imagine the burgers we could expect while picking up a few cans of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to wash it down (after a day’s worth of tasting wine, a beer isn’t a bad thing though Samsara’s Melville or Ampelos Syrah would have been handy too!). I placed my order for the Jalama Burger and suddenly had a nervous feeling wash over me that they might be serving American cheese, and after my last experience at Rally’s, I didn’t want it ruined by an inferior processed cheese and upgraded to Cheddar. Kevin followed suit.

We took a seat upstairs, admiring the panoramic view of the coast as we waited for our number to be called. Though we’d heard the line gets heavy in the summertime, it was a short wait till we were on the verge of eating.

The praises sung of the Jalama Beach burger matched what I had before me. A fresh California burger that would make In-N-Out jealous, with beautifully fresh shredded Iceberg lettuce, tomato, a third pound patty with a finely melted layer of cheddar framed in a sesame seed bun. The first bite was amazing; the warmth from a nicely seasoned patty and appropriately melted layer of cheese against the cold, crisp vegetables was sensational. Each ensuing bite got better, showing zero flaws as I moved closer to the core. The Thousand Islands sauce wasn’t copious, and each bite was in proportion from start to finish. Balanced. The fries were also top notch, long, seasoned liberally, and were slow to lose their heat—a nice counterpart to the epitome of a California burger.

I’m not a surfer, but if I had been at the beach all day, that burger would take top honors in the state. Savoring every bite until there was nothing more. We debated another burger because the likelihood of us coming back soon was out of the question. It’s definitely worthy of a repeat visit (and it’s a fair price: eleven dollars for a beer, burger and fries was a steal) but the next time I’m bringing a bottle of Samsara Syrah, a girl (no offense, Kevin), and a blanket to enjoy one of the best burgers in California on Jalama Beach.

I knew it would be good, but just how good, that was the three hundred dollar question. Would my experience at Bobcat Bite justify the steep airfare and surpass my sky-high expectations of a great hamburger? On the final leg of our journey, the three of us, separate from our host, took a pilgrimage north to Santa Fe for some burger soul-searching before heading home.

We had done a lot more than I expected to in New Mexico; we ate well and participated in everything, save for hot air ballooning, under the auspices of our local resident Bryan. On Sunday, our final day in the Southwest, we got an early start on our itinerary, hiking before the sun would overwhelm the trails. Ascending unawares to deceptively higher altitudes, the height had caused our breathing to be more strained. Increasingly affected as we pushed harder to the top, in thirty-nine minutes we had completed our course, good pace afoot, and were officially ready for breakfast.

Stopping at Weck’s on the return drive, a Southwest diner that specializes in breakfast and lunch options, with hefty portions and the green chile touch, we ate our fill. Passing mounds of potatoes (Papas) under broken yolks at adjacent four-tops, as we were lead to our table. We had arrived at a unanimous decision by the time we found our seats: Papas, for four, with slight derivations on the staple breakfast plate between us. I went with carnitas over-easy with a blend of red and green chilies—Christmas–, while others went for different options like Carne Adovada, Sloppy and Pollo. The mounds of potatoes arrived before us, feasts for our eyes, but I could hear our logical bellies collectively gasp—too much. The meat smothered hash browns were excellent but definitely too heavy for me. I walked away after finishing three quarters of the plate, having to part with the unfinished Papas for fear of going comatose and not leaving a sliver of room in my belly for the early dinner in Santa Fe.

Uncomfortably full from one of the biggest breakfasts I had ever eaten, we sluggishly readied ourselves for our departure. We bid our host adieu and thanked him wholeheartedly for the surprisingly eventful weekend, taking our rented wheels for a spin north on I 25 heading for Santa Fe. In a little over an hour we were being funneled through the downtown at 1:15 PM, touring the city without leaving the car, minding our 5:40 PM return flight back at ABQ. Clock management.

Two hours elapsed before pulling into the parking lot of Bobcat Bite, even though we thought we would never have to eat again. The hairs lifted between my pate and phalanges in sheer excitement. It had been a long time coming. I first heard of the place in 2004, on Hamburger America—a documentary showcasing a few stellar burger locations across the states. The owners looked humble and inviting, and their inimitable Green Chile Cheeseburger shone onscreen. Eight years later, I would have my first chance to sight and validate one of the unicorns of burgers that I had been chasing in my burger quest for almost an entire decade.

Under the midday monsoon we entered Bobcat Bite at about 3:15 PM–uncomfortably closer to our departure–, chalking our name (Goldy, party of Three) behind two sizeable groups (six and seven-people parties) ahead of us on the board. We waited patiently, while one of our own grew squeamish due to calculations of drive time back down to the airport. The time passed quickly, twenty-five minutes in and only the first group had been seated. We were still waiting for the seven-top to be accommodated. Growing restless, our friend’s legitimate panic was starting to carry-over. The unfortunate thought that we might have to forego the burger (MY PURPOSE FOR VACATIONING IN NEW MEXICO!!!!) was fast becoming a dismal reality. We held out, and just as soon as the sun re-entered the Santa Fe sky, setting for the seven-top was called, followed by “Goldy.” Our iPhones showed 3:55 PM and the next priority was getting our ticket fired before the seven-top. We knew what we wanted before we were seated. No dawdling! We tried to place it as we sat but that wasn’t possible according to our waitress. With urgency, we waited for her return. In what seemed like an eternity (about a minute) she found us with pen and paper and had our order in—success! While the group of seven behind us was figuring out appetizers, we had snuck in our order.

A sense of relief came over two of us, but the realist at the table knew we weren’t out of the woods. He was almost too frustrated to eat but the picture of those three open-faced cheeseburgers was enough to bring a tear to one’s eye. Between Canon and Instagram, we had documented our glorious sandwiches and were ready to eat in a hurry.

Served with potato chips, the hulking patty was the focus of this burger. The green chile and cheese were in proportion while the tomato and lettuce were off to the side. We piled high and dug into that fresh-ground 10oz. patty of sirloin and chuck. It was the three hundred dollar bite. The meat was seasoned and prepared flawlessly. They were masters of their craft. With excellent texture in the mouth the burger was divine. Each bite was better than before and the three of us looked at each other knowing full well, that this was the best burger we had ever eaten. Wolfing it down, we cashed out and ran out of the restaurant to the car at 4:17 PM.

Cutting it close, we tested our Nissan Sentra’s limits, pushing a hundred to cut some time off our hour plus drive down south to the rental car return. We meditated on the burgers to keep ourselves sane trying desperately not to look at the in-dash clock.

With five minutes before take-off to spare, we had made the gate, in a terrible rush… that was totally worth it! Jeremy, our justified worrywart, was finally relieved, while Brandon and I were comfortable with the possibility of missing the flight because we were still awestruck by our Green Chile cheeseburgers. It is a lot to pay for a hamburger, if you only count the airfare against this one experience and not all the rest of the great things we had done in New Mexico, but from the first bite, I was happy to have made the excursion to Santa Fe and eat the best burger of my life.

We had a lot on our plates in Albuquerque, being ushered through the city where we toured a farmer’s market, walked through Old Town, kept our appointment to visit Gruet Winery, swam in the public plunge, and capped our busy second day (Saturday) watching a minor league baseball game. We were also able to fuel our gastronomic desires, by packing in some local flavor, between our breakfast burritos and our dinner spot en route to the Isotopes stadium—Blake’s Lotaburger.

We passed by a few Lotaburgers that day, planting the seed early for a spot to grab dinner. A hamburger stand native to New Mexico, the chain took root over sixty years ago, growing up originally in Albuquerque and then mushrooming into other parts of the state. Its humble appearance spoke volumes, quietly, and I asked our friend/tour-guide Brian about his impression. Much to my liking, his response was that it’s a straightforward burger stand that won’t make the food until you order it.

On our way to one of the seedier locations, the four of us piled out of the car hungry as could be after swimming in the hot sun. We went counter side, and put in for four green chile burger combos (approximately seven dollars a piece), including seasoned fries and mega beverage.

We discussed the day’s activities and how the surrounding area reminded most of us of Breaking Bad—waiting until our numbers were called sequentially.

We unwrapped our combos, exposing tightly packed burgers reminiscent of many little chain spots. The difference here was the use of Hatch chilies. I had paid for an extra container of green chile, which I used, to excess, to give the burger a boost. Everything was fresh and, for a fast food stand it was fair.

On our way out of Blake’s we experienced our first monsoon pelting the ground in cold showers. When we arrived at the parking lot we had a ten-minute wait in the car before we could enter the ballpark due to the steady downpour. After the grey blew through we were good to go inside and watch the tilt between the Triple A farm team of the Los Angeles Dodgers (Albuquerque Isotopes) taking on the Miami Marlins Triple A squad and catch the Saturday night fireworks (Courtesy of The Albuquerque Isotopes).

A decent fast food burger and a come-from-behind win for the hometown Isotopes bookmarked our second night in Albuquerque. We were just a day away from our Bon Vivant moment.

New Mexico is not an obvious choice for the burger lover but without flaunting it, statewide they boast some of the finest hamburgers in the country. I had long wanted to visit the Land of Enchantment but needed more of a reason than a great hamburger. Since joining the wine industry I’d been routinely pleased with the quality of the domestic sparklers being produced in New Mexico—a state that had seemed less than ideal for growing grapes at the onset of a career, but had blossomed into respect and… vacation plans—Gruet Winery was more than enough draw to convince a few close friends to book a trip with me to the Southwest. Between the winery and a few eateries, our itinerary was wide open and the trip was in motion.

The three of us flew into Albuquerque arriving late in the afternoon, after standing by at LAX (Los Angeles’ international airport), waiting alongside Rick Bayless and countless other travelers as we switched to an earlier flight to wring out the most free time out of our sojourn. We picked up our rental car in Albuquerque and took off on the 25 North to Paseo del Norte until we reached our friend’s home on the outskirts of town.

Two of us were meeting Brian for the first time, but he welcomed us all to his home. We discussed our morning spent dawdling at the airport, before being briefed on New Mexican cuisine. The message we got…  that everything comes with green chile. There are places that also offer red chile, and those that do, generally offer mixed chilies or “Christmas.” We were prepped on capsaicin levels but that would vary according to our hosts. Many of the places were new to all of us, so these guidelines would be tested immediately. The first on the list of eateries was nearby, just off Wyoming Boulevard adjacent to Whole Foods, which made it instantly familiar to yours truly.

Unlike the many gourmet burgeries that are so faddish here in LA, Five Star Burgers offered a relaxed setting with a family atmosphere. The restaurant served reasonably priced foods and drinks (though that is relative to LA), with Southwest signature—hold the gimmicks.

The place was packed and they seated us quickly and courteously, even piping in the Detroit Lions pre-season game to appease the Michigander half of our party per request.

We watched a few drives and our fried green chile strips touched down on the table along with our drinks. A heap of breaded fried Hatch chile strips were served with a green chile aioli to satiate our green chili fix. There was a touch of spice on the finish that added a bit of dimension to the fried foods. I reached for my glass of Blue Teal Shiraz of New Mexico, which was surprisingly sweet—flirting heavily with off dry—and went well with the rumpled lengths of pepper.

Minutes after finishing the appetizer we had our food. Four green chile cheeseburgers weighed down the table. Served open-faced, with standard fixings on the side (pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and onion), we assembled them as we saw fit. The burgers were hefty, dripping endlessly as I brought the sandwich to my mouth. It took one bite to recognize that the beef was the softest, most tender grind I had ever encountered. A high proportion of fat in the mixture of the grind made the meat so soft that when you applied pressure to the patty it would fan out. The added green chile and the pepper jack cheese provided the right dynamics to support the award-winning flavors. We were all in agreement that the burger was in good standing and ranked high even among the high caliber of burger spots in Southern California. Again, my sweet New Mexican Shiraz lent the right combination of flavors to quell the heat from the green chilies, but on its own that wine was a tall order—a tad too sweet.

With a lot going right early on for the Detroit fans at the table (the Stafford to Megatron connection was looking poised) and everyone contented by their fare—the first stop in Albuquerque was a success. We were just underway and had already been delighted by the Southwest with much more on the horizon. Could we top this? Stay tuned!

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