At least one customer strode in wearing a pink feline-emblazoned T-shirt proclaiming “The Bobcat Bite.”
Santa Fe’s iconic burger joint was back in business Thursday, re-christened as the Santa Fe Bite, complete with the requisite green chile burgers that cemented its national reputation.
Servers scurried from the kitchen to the outdoor patio of the restaurant space at Garrett’s Desert Inn, downtown at 311 Old Santa Fe Trail. They balanced trays piled with burgers topped with chile, mushrooms, bacon, guacamole, cheese and onions and every variation the burger-deprived could concoct.
It’s been six weeks since owners Bonnie and John Eckre locked the door of the old carnivore’s haven that was housed in a classic old roadhouse on the edge of town, along Old Las Vegas Highway.
The couple left after 12 years of running the restaurant because of a dispute with building owner Mark Panzer. The rustic building was originally a trading post owned by Panzer’s late mother and had been The Bobcat Bite, under a series of operators, since 1953.
The tiny mom-and-pop eatery gleaned regular attention from foodie magazines and TV shows attempting to find America’s best burger. Santa Feans remember both the food and the hordes of hummingbirds buzzing the restaurant’s back window feeders.
Thursday’s grand opening lured a crowd of longtime fans.
Mark Pacheco, “almost 60″ years old, has been chowing down at the Bobcat since he was 5 or 6 years old.
“The food’s good – very good,” he said with a glance at his cleaned plate. “I got the tacquitos. My parents used to go to the Bobcat Bite for a long, long time.”
Pacheco’s brother Gene also eschewed the famous burgers and ordered the ham and cheese.
“It’s the best ham and cheese in the whole state,” he declared.
Both said the new location was more convenient for them.
Santa Fe’s Danny Lehman voted thumbs-up to the revamped cafe space at Garrett’s, which has housed a series of different restaurants in recent years.
“The hamburgers are just as good as they were,” Lehman said. “The main reason was Bonnie; she’s always been a real sweetheart who makes you feel good when you come in.”
“The old place was real crowded and small, but it had a nice ambience,” Lehman’s friend Pete Kittredge said. Both men live in Eldorado, not far from the former location.
“It’s a little farther to drive,” Kittredge acknowledged. “We’re not sure why they had to move, but whatever it was, we support Bonnie. We believe in buying local.”
Eckre said she hosted an unadvertised “soft opening” Wednesday.
“We wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing,” she explained. “It’s a good thing. The computers were down, the phone line was down, and the Coke machine line broke.”
Luckily, most of her customers are patient.
“Everybody knows that because the burgers are 10-ounce they take a long time to cook,” she said. “They take 20 minutes.”
The Eckres grind the beef – boneless chuck or sirloin – themselves. They cook it on a traditional cast iron grill made by John.
“It’s more flavorful,” Bonnie Eckre said.
The new restaurant spans four times the size of the old building.
With the additional space comes an expanded menu. Customers can now order both French fries and sweet potato fries, milkshakes and malts, breakfast items such as quesadillas, huevos rancheros and frittatas and French toast. Vegetarians can order chopped, wedge and house salads, as well as veggie burgers. The list also includes tortilla soup and Texas chili (as they spell it in the Lone Star State).
Beer and wine will be available when the Eckres get a license. A glass case offers an assortment of delicacies ranging from truffles to cookies by pastry chef Andrea Clover.
“I tried to take everybody’s ideas and say, ‘If you could add anything to our menu, what would it be?’ ” Eckre said.
Thursday’s lunch crowd included both regulars and tourists. One out-of-towner arrived after getting her hair done in a hotel salon.
“They hear about us,” Eckre said. “She walked in and said, ‘I’ve never come here before, but everybody’s talking about you.’ ”
Santa Fe’s Allegra Askew ate at the old Bobcat for 30 years.
“It’s incredible food, but it’s really Bonnie and John – they’re great people. It translates into the food. It’s the only place I trust to get a rare burger.”
The Santa Fe Bite is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Breakfast is served until 2 p.m.