Righteous flavors: East Downtown’s venerable Holy Burger offers heavenly high-end treats

Holy Burger’s green chile cheeseburger includes chopped lettuce, a tomato slice and red onion ring. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Albuquerque’s burger scene has roughly three tiers. At the lowest level are the national chains, where you can get a filling, if forgettable, burger from the value menu for a little over a buck.

Then come the midrange places such as Rex’s and Laguna Burger, where the burgers come on checkered paper in plastic baskets and cost in the $5 neighborhood.

And finally, you have the top tier, the places where prices start around $10 and top out at over $15. These are the restaurants like 5 Star, Fork & Fig and Santa Fe Bite, the places with thick, juicy burgers and an inventive selection of toppings.

Holy Burger in East Downtown is one of the longer-standing entries in this echelon, having served its highly regarded burgers since 2011. The restaurant sits on a corner lot on Central, a short distance west of Interstate 25. There’s a parking lot in the back. On the sign out front, the letter “O” in the logo has been flattened into a halo that hovers over the skull of a steer.

The grass-fed beef is fresh, never frozen, locally sourced, and cooked to either “pink” (medium) or “no pink” (well-done). The build-your-own burger starts at $9.50, or you can choose from a few options, such as a jalapeño burger with pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli. Prices are comparable to others in this genre. For instance, the Holy Burger, made with bacon, American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, is $10.95, just a nickel cheaper than 5 Star Burger’s eponymous offering with Gorgonzola and bacon.

Holy Burger’s green chile cheeseburger ($10.75) is a towering presentation held together with a toothpick. The thick patty, loosely packed to keep it juicier and more tender, is barely contained by the bun. I didn’t have a scale handy, but it was easily more than a half-pound of meat. The patty sits over chopped lettuce, a slice of tomato and a ring of red onion. It was seasoned and seared on the grill for a superb salty crust over a uniformly pink core. Eating it is an adventure. With every bite, the green chile snarls at you, juice drizzles out and pieces of burger fall to the plate. Despite all the juice, the bun largely held up.

The fries ($4), thin-cut and well-salted, come piled on a plate in a generous portion. They were middling: Not exactly soggy, but not crisp, either.

Holy Burger’s vegetarian No Cow burger is made with roasted eggplant and chickpeas. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

A veggie burger called the No Cow ($9.50) is made in house from roasted eggplant and chickpeas. The patty is deep-fried until a dark brown shell forms on the outside. The result looks like a large piece of falafel. It was so free of grease we thought it had been baked in the oven rather than fried. The saffron-colored inside was mostly mushy, its buttery eggplant flavor a refreshing break from the ubiquitous black bean-based veggie burger. My friend ate half, took the rest home and said it tasted better the next day.

There are no gluten-free buns available, so diners looking to avoid gluten must settle for burger patties over lettuce.

Besides burgers, the menu offers four sandwiches ($10-$11), three salads and fish and chips made from haddock ($14.50/$10.50 for a half-order).

One of three salads on Holy Cow’s menu, the beet salad includes walnuts and goat cheese on a pile of greens. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

In the beet salad ($11.50), cubed beets, lumps of goat cheese and sugar-spiced walnuts enliven a big pile of battered-looking mixed greens fairly soaked in balsamic vinaigrette. Next time, I would get the dressing on the side.

The Guinness milk shake combines stout, ice cream and chocolate sauce. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The impressive drink menu reads like a hybrid of a soda fountain and a watering hole. There are plenty of local beers on tap, mostly $5.50, a few wines by the glass and some wine-based cocktails like sangria. On the sweet side are milkshakes, malteds and root beer floats. The Guinness milkshake ($5.75) was terrific, the slightly bitter flavor of the stout cutting the sweetness of the ice cream.

Service ran hot and cold during the weekday lunch hour. It took about five minutes for our presence to be acknowledged, even though it wasn’t very busy. Once things got rolling, the server proved to be cheerful and able to answer most of our questions.

The dining room is not a place that encourages lingering. The hard surfaces amplify the music and conversation, and the tables around us took some time to get bused. Relatedly, about a dozen flies haunted the space, taking turns tormenting diners. Based on what I observed, the oversights were more a matter of inattentiveness than short staffing. The shaded patio offers a quieter setting, but it’s too hot these days to bring much solace.

My experience at Holy Burger suggests that the operation at the front of the house needs to step up to match the level of the cooks manning the grill.

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