Capitan’s Oso Grill on a hot streak

Brian Cleckler, owner and chef at Oso Grill in Capitan, gets a hug from server Terry Alanis after winning the Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge at the State Fair on Monday. It was the third time Oso had won and the fourth time he had earned the People’s Choice Award. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The first year the Oso Grill in Capitan won the State Fair’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge, “people thought it was a fluke, because we’re from a small town and most people don’t even know where Capitan is,” owner Brian Cleckler said.

The second year the restaurant won the challenge showed that the title was no stroke of luck, “and that Capitan is now known for more than just Smokey Bear,” he said.

bright spotOn Monday, the Oso Grill nailed the competition for the third year in a row – not counting the 2020 pandemic year, when the State Fair was canceled – demonstrating that the restaurant’s green chile cheeseburger deservedly stands at the front of a very long line of restaurants that offer very good burgers.

“What makes us different is that in addition to the hot diced Hatch green chile, we also use battered and deep-fried green chile strips that are not as hot, which adds another layer of flavor and texture,” Cleckler said.

Eight judges ranked the burgers after a blind taste test in which they assigned a score of 1 to 10 based on presentation, balance, flavor and heat of the chile, and flavor and skill with which the meat was cooked.

In addition, it was the fourth year in a row that Oso Grill won the People’s Choice Award, judged on ballots handed out to fair visitors in the courtyard of the agriculture complex, where the four competing restaurants set up grills and handed out burger portions.

Brian Cleckler, right, owner and chef at Oso Grill in Capitan talks to fairgoers tasting his entry in the Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge at the New Mexico State Fair. The burger, featuring battered strips of green chile, won both the People’s Choice and the Judges’ Choice at the contest held Monday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The other restaurants in this year’s competition were second-place winner Big Mike’s Burgers and More, in Belen; Laguna Burger; and the High Point Grill in Albuquerque.

“We’re going to take a break next year and not enter the challenge so that other restaurants can enjoy the thrill of the competition and win bragging rights” Cleckler said. “There are a lot of restaurants serving really good green chile cheeseburgers in the state of New Mexico.”

Mike Montano, owner of Big Mike’s Burgers and More, has entered the competition several times and walked away with the second-place trophy Monday.

The Oso Grill in Capitan, NM, is the winner of the Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge held Monday at the New Mexico State Fair. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“It shows that hard work pays off,” he said. His restaurant’s burger features a special “holiday mix” of red and green chopped chile. “It’s just a basic, real simple burger,” he said.

Even though the first-place trophy eluded him, Montano said, “We’re cooking out in the open, we’re at the State Fair and it’s a beautiful day. Can’t complain.”

At least 200 people lined up to taste samples of the burgers, including Rudy Beserra, a native New Mexican who has lived in Atlanta for many years. He times his annual vacation in New Mexico to coincide with the State Fair’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge.

“I come for the green chile. I mean, this is amazing. It’s a signature event for the fair and a big draw, so I try to make it every year.” Meanwhile, he said, he gets his chile fix through care packages mailed to him in Atlanta.

Fair attendee Julie Royes was experiencing the Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge for the first time.

“The Oso Grill was really good,” she said. “It was spicy hot, but not where you needed to follow up with a drink or rice or chips. It was smooth.”

Big Mike’s, she said, “was not too hot – at the beginning – but then it hits you really hard. My mouth is burning right now.

“But I liked it.”

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