By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
"We're never going to make it," my wife told me.
I just smiled, patted Gomez's hood and said, "American iron, baby. Have a little faith."
In fact, Gomez started up on the second turn of the key, roaring like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit but not yet ready for extinction. We pulled out and moved north up the trail to Albuquerque and the Owl Cafe, a distant culinary cousin to the original Owl.
2616 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
In San Antonio, where time stopped over five decades ago, an eatery billed as an "authentic 1940s roadhouse" is just that: authentic. Albuquerque's Owl Cafe opened in the mid-'80s as one of those self-styled '50s diners. Frankly, places like this, with their shiny brushed chrome and Leave It to Beaver malt-shop ambience have always made me itch; on the other hand, the Owl Cafe does have an enormous sculpted owl's head rising up out of the roof, lit from below by spotlights and hot, red neon, which can be almost preternaturally creepy when seen at night for the first time. You've got to give the place bonus points for that.
Besides, along with the Owl name, this eatery also got the recipe for those wonderful green-chile cheeseburgers. Granted, it has a lot of other stuff on the menu, but who cares? That burger (and maybe a side of green-chile cheese fries) is what it's all about. The burger here is just as big, just as juicy, just as fall-apart-in-your-hands tender, topped off by mounds of chopped chile that's hot but not too hot, with an excellent smoky flavor and a mellow afterburn that carries you over until the next bite.
As it turned out, the memory of the Owl's green would have to carry us a lot farther than that. The next morning, we continued our trek north, but after less than a mile it became painfully clear that Gomez didn't have it in him to drag us over Raton Pass. We limped home on back roads, nursing the engine and taking it as easy as we could, but Gomez was a goner. He was running now only out of habit, and after so many thousands of miles, I don't think he quite knew how to quit.
Like a true highway champ, he got us back to Albuquerque.
In the parking lot of a Waffle House, I sold him to a friend for 25 bucks and a case of Pacífico. Maybe he'll reappear one day as a lowrider or as some coddled show car somewhere. Either way, I miss him.
In Albuquerque, we rented a nutless, four-cylinder plastic matchbox car that stank of feet and hospital disinfectant. When driving Gomez, I'd pull up to the line and commuters would shrink back in revulsion. On the rare occasions when I had any passengers other than my wife, they'd ride in terrified silence, afraid that at any moment Gomez might burst into flames or simply shake himself to pieces taking a turn at sixty miles an hour.
In this new car, though, I got the distinct impression that people were laughing at me every time I stepped on the gas. It was disconcerting, but there was nothing I could do about it, because to do anything about it would have required catching someone -- and that was obviously not going to happen once this car hit the highway.
Instead, we refocused on our quest as we squeaked and gurgled through Santa Fe, where -- in deference to the tourists flying in from either coast and the RV-loads of Minnesota farm families on a tour of the great American Southwest -- the chile heat is turned down and the presentation jazzed up. Restaurants along the Plaza post signs warning rookies to order their chile on the side unless they're sure of what they're getting themselves into.
When you order something with green chile in New Mexico, traditionally, that's just what you're going to get: fire-roasted chile, peeled and chopped. Sometimes it isn't even chopped, but simply served as the whole pod, a purist's dream. Rarely is anything done to adulterate the natural flavor and heat. Chile is so sacrosanct that if it's made into a sauce of any kind, the preparation is done carefully and with great restraint so that the taste and texture of the main and most important ingredient is preserved. Even at the upscale Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, chef Mark Miller treats the modest pods with a staggering respect, giving chile glazes and sauces equal billing to such culinary heavyweights as Angus beef, truffles and wild boar.
The transformation of the chile from crop to condiment to sauce smacks -- deliciously -- of culinary assimilation. Immigrants coming north from Mexico and points even farther south carried with them the poblano,serrano and pequín chiles that were a bedrock foundation of their cuisine. It's in the chile's refinement -- from its naked use in Hatch, Socorro and Albuquerque to its being clothed and mellowed by increasingly dense sauces as it moves through Raton, Trinidad and Pueblo -- that I see the movement and acclimation of an entire culture. In the blending of the chile is the mingling of a people.