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The Oldsmobile Toronado is a monster of a car. Seventeen feet long and grossing nearly two tons, it's an old-school blacktop heavyweight and, in its day, was one king-hell luxury ride. Although it never had the power of a Corvette or the raw muscle of those classic Mustangs, pound-for-pound, the Toronado was a slugger. It held its own.
2616 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
By this summer, my secondhand Toronado (called Gomez, the name picked out in gold thumbtacks against his blue-velvet interior) was on its last legs. With well over 200,000 miles on his big V-8, Gomez was showing his age. In his prime, this beast had power everything -- windows, seats, doors, locks, the works -- but most of his electrical system had long ago failed, leaving him with no working gauges, a speedometer that stopped at 32 mph no matter how fast he was going, seats permanently kicked back, lowrider-style, and one door forever locked. He leaked every fluid from every possible orifice, blew clouds of blue smoke from a broken exhaust pipe, and ticked like a bomb at idle.
But the important thing was, Gomez still ran. Like an old prizefighter -- punch-drunk, staggering and half-retarded from too many hits to the head -- when the bell rang, he was ready to mix it up. Just get Gomez out on an open stretch of highway, and you could feel the years drop away.
Between Albuquerque and Denver lay 440 miles of highway. More than enough asphalt to satisfy Gomez -- and since the stretch happened to coincide with the green-chile trail, there were endless eating opportunities for me.
I can think of no strictly regional food item so dearly loved, fiercely debated and quintessentially vital to local cuisine as the humble green chile. For thousands of years, members of the capsicum genus have been cultivated in Central and South America. Christopher Columbus (to whose credit we can add the chile's original misrepresentation as a pepper) brought some back from the New World and introduced them to the Old one. More than 200 varieties of the little buggers are grown today, over a hundred of which are indigenous to Mexico.
You cannot overstate chile's importance to residents of the Land of Enchantment. Chile is like a religion in New Mexico, the largest producer and consumer of chile in the United States and home of the famous Hatch chile. It is everywhere and in all things. Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's all offer green-chile cheeseburgers on their menus, and every street corner has a taquería that dishes out chile like methadone to shambling hordes of helpless addicts.
As far as I'm concerned, the green-chile trail begins at the Owl Bar, an hour below Albuquerque. Gomez, my wife and I growled into Socorro County mid-afternoon -- siesta time -- which was perfect for a nice lunch in the cool, dark confines of the Owl. Gomez was running hot but had held steady at 90 mph until we were forced to slow down for the tiny, nowhere town of San Antonio, ten miles south of Socorro. The sun of the nuclear age rose over this little hamlet -- thirty-some unobstructed miles from the Trinity site -- and as we grumbled down the main street, I got the feeling that nothing had changed since the morning of July 16, 1945, when scientists at the White Sands range detonated the world's first atomic bomb.
The Owl Bar is important in the culinary annals for two reasons. First, it serves the best cheeseburger in the world (although my wife will still argue herself blue in favor of Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers in Los Angeles). And second, according to local lore, all those mad scientists slaving away in their desert bunkers deep in the desolate reaches of Jornada del Muerto would show up at the Owl Bar after long hours working on their doomsday project, get good and liquored up, then go tear-assing back home along these same long stretches of desert highway. Thing is, after a few cold brewskis, your average high-energy nuclear physicist can get a bit peckish. So the late Jose Miera (original owner of the Owl Bar and, as far as anyone knows, the only civilian who knew anything about the blast before it happened) had a grill installed in his nondescript high-desert roadhouse and started cooking. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Owl still makes its "world famous Owlburger" the same way it did over a half-century ago. The kitchen grinds the beef and forms it into patties so large they hang over the bun on all sides. Tongue-blistering fresh green chiles are chopped into chunks, then slopped generously onto a cheeseburger that, once lifted, can't be put down again without the whole architectural structure of lettuce, onions, cheese, chile and meat collapsing. But since there's little between heaven and hell that could make me put down an Owlburger, issues of structural stability are of no concern to me.
Stepping out into the heat of a blazing New Mexico sunset a couple hours later, my wife and I spotted the puddle under Gomez's crankcase. Immediately, we're thinking that David Lynch movies start this way: East Coast newlyweds tooling around the Southwest when some tiny but vital portion of their car's anatomy ruptures, leaving them stranded with night falling and some glare-blind mechanic named Skeeter working out of a tarpaper shack attached to his rusted-out Airstream saying, "Sorry, folks. Gonna be two weeks 'fore I can git that part." Next thing you know, BAM! -- out come the atomic zombies.
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