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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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