ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Oso Grill in Capitan makes an oh-so-good burger.
In fact, it’s oh-so-good that it won first place in the State Fair’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge on Monday.
But the burger also won the People’s Choice Award for the second year in a row – and the first time a restaurant has won both awards in the same year.
The People’s Choice award is based on ballots submitted by the public after a tasting of burgers by all the participating restaurants.
The runner-up in the challenge for the second year was Fuddrucker’s. The Albuquerque restaurant won first place in the competition in 2014 and 2015.
Ten restaurants from around New Mexico entered a burger, including Sparky’s from Hatch, last year’s first-place winner; El Bruno’s Restaurante y Cantina, with locations in Cuba and Los Ranchos de Albuquerque; and Big Mike’s Grill and Fat Sat’s Bar and Grill, both from Belen. Rounding out the roster were Albuquerque eateries Starr Brothers Brewing, Oak Tree Cafe, Bubba’s 33, and Rosemary.
“It’s more than a competition,” said Brian Cleckler, owner of the Oso Grill. “This is the only advertising we’ve ever done. We entered a burger last year, which was our first year, and we thought, let’s try a little harder and do it again.”
The Oso Grill has 15 employees, half of them family members, Cleckler said, adding his thanks to the people of Capitan and Lincoln County “who all support our restaurant.”
A number of things make the Oso Grill’s green chile cheeseburger stand out from the crowd, he said.
In addition to diced Hatch green chile, the burger also features green chile strips that are battered and deep fried “for added texture and crunch,” Cleckler said.
“The star of a green chile cheeseburger should be the chile, so we don’t add lettuce, tomatoes or onions or anything like that. We want the green chile to speak for itself.”
The meat, of course, is also important. The Oso Grill uses 100 percent certified Angus ground chuck that’s 80 percent lean, leaving enough fat so the burger cooks in its own juices on the flat grill.
“I season the meat like it’s a steak, not like it’s a hamburger,” he said.
Also layered into the toasted brioche bun is a “secret in-house chipotle sauce” and two slices of American cheese strategically placed to melt and hold the diced chile and chile strips in place.
Judges were given only an identifying number for each burger and did not know which number was assigned to which restaurant. They rated the burgers on a scale of 1-10, using a host of criteria, including balance – meaning the meat, bun, chile and toppings were proportionate; the flavor and heat of the green chile; presentation; and the skill with which the meat was cooked.
Among the judges was Jim Morrow, commander of the USS New Mexico naval submarine, who was not only judging a burger contest for the first time, but had never tasted a green chile cheeseburger (though has had occasion to eat Tex-Mex-style chile con carne).
“First, I have to figure out what green chile tastes like, so I can establish a baseline,” he said before the competition began. “I think I’ll be looking for some kind of a balance between taste and heat, something that’s not so hot that you lose the taste of the burger. If I’m not able to see through my tears, it’s probably too hot.”
Other judges included Rocky Durham, executive chef at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in Santa Fe; David Romero, morning anchor at KRQE-TV; chef John Hartley, assistant professor in the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces; and New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, who was returning for his second year as a judge.
“This is tough duty, but somebody has to do it,” the chief joked. “I’ve trained for years for this. My body is built for eating green chile cheeseburgers.”
The annual Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge is now in its 10th year. The first place 2009 inaugural year winner was Badlands Burgers in Grants.