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Local Fire: Travel Channel series spotlights four of N.M.’s finest burger joints

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — George Motz, a filmmaker and Travel Channel television host, loves hamburgers as much as he loves stories about them.

New Mexico green chile cheeseburgers dish up plenty of both, so Motz headed to the Land of Enchantment, where the state’s tourism department offers a map of almost 100 burger joints on its Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.

For an episode of the upcoming “Burger Land,” an exploration of hamburgers across the country, Motz chose four New Mexican eateries where the fire of local chile is ignited with just the right blend of ground beef and buffered with gooey cheese.

He and his crew headed down to San Antonio and the Owl Bar and Cafe, opened in 1945, where the fabled quarter-pound burger has been flipped on the same grill by the same cook for almost 40 years.

As much as he gobbled up that sandwich of layered delight, he also chowed down on owner Rowena Baca’s version of how the original green chile cheeseburger was created from an accidental collision when the chile, routinely ordered on the side, was dumped on top of the burger, he says.

Cathy Soto, manager of the Owl Bar and Cafe, says she knows the burger’s fresh taste is part of its appeal: “I started here in 1978, right after graduation, and I know the meat is ground fresh every morning here.”

Like most of the burgers on the show and all the eateries in “Burger Land,” an Owl green chile cheeseburger, with pickles, onion, tomato and lettuce, with fries or something else on the side, sells for $10 or less.

On the air
The New Mexico episode of “Burger Land,” is scheduled to air 9 p.m. ET/7 p.m. MT May 13 on the Travel Channel, but the date could change. Check local listings in the Journal’s Entertainer section, which appears in the Saturday paper.

In addition to The Owl and the popular Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, Motz included two more of his favorites, The Pantry Restaurant in Santa Fe and Bode’s General Store in Abiquiu.

“These four are some of the best,” Motz says of his choices. “These places have great hamburgers and great stories.”

Motz featured the Bobcat Bite in his award-winning documentary, “Hamburger America,” that appeared on the Sundance Channel in 2005 and a book by the same title, released by Running Press in 2008 and 2011. The Travel Channel series developed out of his efforts.

Motz is no stranger to the green chile cheeseburger or the state. His father-in-law lives in Tesuque, he says, so he has plenty of inside information about where to find the best burgers, he says.

He traveled through New Mexico in February filming the episode and wrapped up in Connecticut, another of the 11 states featured. The first episode, about burgers in Los Angeles, is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. ET/8 p.m. MT, April 15 on the Travel Channel. (Times can vary on different cable and dish providers, so check listings in the Journal’s Entertainer section in the Saturday paper.)

“Regional uniqueness abounds in America in the burger,” Motz explains from his home in New York City. “Outside of New Mexico, you just aren’t going to find a green chile cheeseburger, not a real one at least. It’s an anomaly. The same is true in other places.”

In Little Havana in Miami he found Cuban-style frita burgers. In Connecticut he ate a steamed hamburger without condiments and in Wisconsin he dined on butter burgers that came on a plate swimming in butter.

A generous ratio of fat-to-lean ground beef is what makes a burger juicy, Motz says, adding that the hamburger needs to start with at least 15 percent fat and likely a little more. Eating burgers while zigzagging the country was his version of culinary bliss, but it wasn’t so kind to his waistline, padding on about 10 pounds.

“It’s manageable. I’m going to get it off. I work out every day,” he says, adding that thanks to his wife’s influence, he also eats tons of vegetables while he’s on the road.

In fact, it was at Bobcat Bite while working on the documentary that his wife, a vegetarian for 17 years, began eating meat again, he says.

“She’s no longer a vegetarian after that,” he says. “Hamburgers make you happy.”

Destination: Bobcat Bite

John Eckre, cook and owner at Bobcat Bite with his wife, Bonnie, says people who don’t eat much meat, still their find their way to his 30-seat restaurant on the Old Las Vegas Highway.

“My idea is that no one should eat that much red meat, maybe once a week or once a month,” Eckre says. “But if you are going to eat red meat, go for quality.”

Along with the new attention from the Travel Channel, Bobcat Bite has received other national accolades. “I think we have fame above the number of burgers we sell.”

In the summer he sells about 250 burgers a day and about half that many in the winter, he says.

The cast iron grill, original to the restaurant since in opened in 1953, may be the secret of the juicy burgers. Eckre grinds the hamburger fresh daily with a blend of boneless chuck and sirloin. He serves the 10-ounce patty, cooked to order, on a brioche bun with a slice of Swiss-American cheese melted over a generous helping of chopped Hatch green chile: “If you have good meat to start with and good green chile, you don’t want other strong flavors to interfere with that.”

Fresh ground beef is a guiding criteria for Motz: “Most of the restaurants I chose, grind the meat fresh in house or they know their butcher by his first name. Newer places don’t have much history to talk about.”

Destination: The Pantry

At The Pantry Restaurant on Cerrillos Road, Motz wanted a slight variation on the green chile cheeseburger theme and fell for a tortilla burger smothered in red chile, he says.

Pantry co-owner Michael Singley says the meat is ground fresh and served on a flour tortilla with New Mexico red chile and a hearty helping of a shredded blend Monterrey Jack and cheddar: “You have to eat it with a knife and fork,” says Singley, whose father bought the restaurant, which has been serving food since 1948, 12 years ago.

Destination: Bode’s General Store

North in Abiquiu, Dennis Liddy and his wife, Constance, have owned the Bode’s General Store for about 20 years. The original store opened in the late 1890s and the store’s namesake, Martin Bode, a German immigrant, was looking for work and bought the store in 1919.

Motz says a food reviewer recommended Bode’s and it appears as the fourth act, a time in each episode when he features a burger he hasn’t eaten before: “Now I love it. The Liddys are great people.”

Bode’s green chile cheese burger is a half-pound handmade patty with New Mexico green chile, served with melted cheddar on a seeded bun.

Liddy likes the attention, with some reservations: “I’m afraid to get anyone’s expectations too high. We’re a gas station after all. We’ve been offering food for the past 18 years. We try to make as close to homemade as we can. The meats are the highest quality we can buy and we try to serve everything fresh.”