Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Whata Lota Bite!

Blake's "stickman" sign

I stopped in at Whataburger for a fast food fix on the way home a couple of weeks ago and discovered that they had green chile as an option on their burgers, so it was only natural that I ordered a double-double-double: two meats, two cheeses, and a double portion of roasted green chile. It was my standard order at Blake’s Lotaburger up in New Mexico back in the days when we used to frequent the Santa Fe-Las Vegas area (Vegas New Mexico, not Nevada). For a second there, the flavor reminded me of that first bite of Blake’s, as we would roll into town off of the high-octane, high desert drive up from Texas.  One of the first things I wanted was either a cheese and carne adovada-stuffed fried sopapilla, half red-half green and a side of posole with green, or a Blake’s double-double-double.

Whataburger green chile burger

The New Mexico trips started back in the UT COOP days, when John, JaneNell (and sometimes Jilly), Mikey, and me would all pack into the van, roll up a couple of dozen doobies, pop a black molly and a beer, and head north, usually to camp out, hike, and check out the art and sights of the Santa Fe area. If we weren’t going there, we were going to Big Bend. And then later I would go up and visit Buck and his pals (Maryanne, Scott and Libby, Vicente and Suzanne [and Jeanett], Lyna and Lou, and all the rest of the gang), or later go up with Buck to visit the homies.  A favorite past time back then was to plan a huge feast, pack up the cooking supplies we couldn't get up there, and the IH 35 Chef’s Association (Chris Shirley, Ray Tatum, and I) would head north to cook our asses off and grace the Las Vegas crew, and usually a herd of their friends, with some seriously good cuisine that they couldn't get locally.  And every single time I went up there, at least one visit to Blake’s Lotaburger took place. If it wasn’t in Las Vegas, it was in Santa Fe, and more often than not it was in both.

dorky 1970 Whataburger uniforms....Lotaburger workers would never wear anything that ridiculous

vintage Whataburger location

Of course, the green chile at Whataburger isn’t as spicy or as distinctly flavorful as the Hatch green chile that Blake’s serves, but the burgers are very similar in style and taste. Harmon Dobson started Whataburger in 1950 in Corpus Christi, and Blake Chanslor created Lotaburger in 1952 in Albuquerque. Both serve a 5-inch, two-handed burger that’s cooked-to-order, with a griddled, toasted bun, and both are great.  Blake’s started offering Hatch green chile as an option because so many locals came to Lotaburger toting their own roasted green chile to add to their burgers. Whataburger is new to the green chile game, but they have offered jalapeƱos for a long time, so some credit is due.

the spread at Blake's Lotaburger

If you pinned me down today, I’d definitely say I prefer the Lotaburger over the Whataburger; it’s all about the green chile, yo. But the nearest Lotaburger is a seriously long drive from here, so I suffer in silence and accept what I can access. 
As soon as I was tipped off, I started making a pilgrimage to the Bobcat Bite outside of Santa Fe during every New Mexico trip, for their amazing  green chile burger. The Bobcat Bite opened in 1953, and their sumptuous fresh-ground, massive, juicy, green chile burger has consistently ranked in the top 10 burgers in the US. The Bite sits on a rarified plane, far, far, far above the Whata’s and Lota’s.

Bobcat Bite green chile burger (courtesy of Wikipedia)

On June 9th the Bobcat Bite closed due to a dispute between the owners (the Panzers) and the operators (John and Bonnie Eckre). The Eckres took their griddle and relocated to downtown Santa Fe, inside Garret’s Desert Inn, opening as Santa Fe Bite.  It’s bigger (from 29 seats at the original to over a hundred now), with longer hours, alcohol, a bigger menu, and higher prices. I can’t wait to try it, and hope like hell it tastes as good as it used to out east of town, on the Old Pecos Highway. In the meantime, I’ll subsist on Whataburger’s seasonal green chile offering, or make my own.

Green Chile Cheeseburger

This is a knock-off of the famous green chile burger served at the Bobcat Bite, which used to be on the Old Pecos Highway, east of Santa Fe about 15 miles or so (John and Bonnie Eckre are now re-opened in Santa Fe, as The Santa Fe Bite). They would put about 3 tablespoons of green chile on each burger, but I like that distinctive  green chile flavor to really assert itself, so I use about ¼ cup to 1/3 cup per burger. About 8 New Mexico green chiles will yield a cup of roasted green chile once roasted and peeled. The Bobcat Bite famously ground their beef daily, from chunks of choice chuck and sirloin. Back in the day, the scraps were thrown outside for the bobcats that would come down to feed at dusk, hence the name of the diner. Their patty was about an 80-20, but I prefer a bit more fat for extra flavor and juiciness. The original griddle at the Bobcat Bite was an old cast iron unit, and John Eckre had a custom-built griddle made which also had a cast iron surface.

Per serving:
Cast iron stovetop griddle or wide cast iron frying pan
2-3 Hatch green chiles, roasted and peeled
10-ounce ground meat patty, fresh-ground, half chuck-half sirloin, 30% fat content
Salt and pepper
Thick slice of white cheddar
1 challah or brioche-style burger bun, 4¼ to 4½ inches in width
Melted butter and a pastry brush
Garlic aioli, made from rich mayonnaise, minced fresh garlic, and a touch of lemon
Red onion slice
Ripe tomato slice
Crisp lettuce leaf
Potato chunks, cooked in a skillet like hash browns, with garlic, black pepper, and paprika

To roast and peel the green chiles:
Using a pair of tongs, fire grill the chiles over an open flame or in a broiler until charred completely, so that the skin blisters-up but is not burnt through. Take the chiles and throw them into a paper bag, or into a covered bowl, letting them cool enough to handle. Using the dull back of a butter knife, scrape the charred skin from the chiles; you want to leave a few little bits of char on the exterior.  Remove the stem and scrape out about half of the seeds and ribs inside. The more seeds and ribs removed, the milder the heat will be. Reserve warm.

The patty:
Using wet hands, shape the patty slightly larger than the outside dimension of the bun you’re using, and make a slight depression (a sloping  ¼-inch dimple) into the center of the patty on both sides. The depression will swell as the patty cooks, leaving a flat surface on both sides. Don’t overwork the meat as you handle it; it will make the burger tough. Keep the patty ice cold until it cooks; this helps the fat stay inside, which makes it tastes better and juicier. Cook the patty on a hot cast iron surface, so that the surface caramelizes well, forming a nice crust. Season it liberally with salt and pepper on both sides as it cooks. Try to not flip the patty more than once or twice; handling equals dry meat. The interior should be 150°F for that perfect spot between medium-rare and medium and still juicy as hell. Top the patty with ¼ to 1/3-cup of hot chopped green chile and then place the cheese slice on top; the melting cheese will stabilize the green chile and hold it in place. Let the meat rest for 5 minutes before consuming.

The bun:
Dry-toast the interior of both sides of the bun until golden brown. Brush the toasted surfaces lightly will melted salted butter and dress and serve as soon as possible, so that the surface stays as crisp as possible.

Apply aioli to both buns. Place the red onion on the bottom bun, top with the meat patty-green chile-cheese combo. Place the tomato slice on the cheese, top with lettuce, and the top half of the bun. Secure with a long toothpick and serve with hash brown potatoes: the chunk style, not the shredded style.

Between the cheese and the tomato, add three slices of thick-sliced, crisply cooked, high quality bacon, such as Benton's or Nueske's.


Mick Vann©       

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