Lunch Stop in San Antonio, New Mexico
Don and I don't usually stop at bars during the day, especially when we're on the road.
But Don had read a little something about this place that had us both scratching our heads. The curious trivia had to do with what lead to their well-known Green Chile & Cheese Owl Burger. We knew we had to make a stop on our way to Albuquerque!
The flapping flag and serious looking owl, made me worry that we might be walking into a local men's club. The door just past the sign, looked like the kind you'd enter from the alley. But the story behind the Owl Cheeseburger just drew us in.
Just though the door we found a small waiting area that made up for the mysteriously blank exterior. Photographs and articles covered the plywood walls. A stuffed owl looked like he was ready to land on my head. A rack of bubble gum machines made me feel less intimidated.
Where to Sit?
The bar was a bit more crowded, (than photo) when we first entered. About 3 older women rushed back and forth behind the bar, serving more food than drink.
The booths looked pretty iconic and it was tempting to choose one for a cozy lunch. There were dollar bills and personal notes, tacked to the paneling inside each booth. I learned later that the business gathers them up periodically and donates to charity.
Bar With a History
The 25 foot mahogany bar was purchased shortly after the Owl Bar opened in 1945. Frank and Dee Chavez started the business in Dee's father's grocery store. They bought the 1880's Brunswick-Balk Bar from a famous San Antonio family.
It turns out that tiny town is the birthplace of Conrad Hilton... as in Hilton Hotels. The lovely bar that I failed to photograph well, was first in a rooming House/saloon, owned by C. Hilton's father. Frank and Dee bought the undamaged front bar, after a fire destroyed much of the rooming house. It took 2 days to carefully moved the bar 2 miles, to their roadhouse bar.
Owls Behind the Bar
Don and I sat on our stools staring at the crazy collection of owls behind the bar. I asked "Leo" our server if she had any favorite owls in the place. "Oh there are so many of them. I don't really have a favorite, but there are some real cute ones." I had many more questions, but the women were far too busy. I held my breath while one woman rushed behind me, carrying 6 plates of burgers.
The Owl Burger
Leo served us up a couple of famous burgers while we pondered their history. The cheeseburgers made with roasted Hatch green chiles go back to around 1945. In my distorted photos, one burger looks huge and the other tiny. Actually they were a perfect medium size with gigantic flavor.
"Prospectors" at the Bar
Our cheeseburgers were as spicy and fresh tasting as we'd read about. But the real fun was imagining the people who first ate these famous burgers.
In 1945 some special customers talked Frank Chavez into buying a grill and serving food. The so called "prospectors" were a group of temporary "regulars" who were working in the area. The men who yearned for food, weren't ranchers or cowboys, they were physicists, who were involved in activating the famous Trinity Site explosion. It was odd and eerie to imagine these men sitting at the bar, where we ate our burgers. How out of place they must have seemed at first. I wonder if the bar drinks ever caused a secret or two to slip.
My trip to the restroom was entertaining. I found a back dining room that had more booths and more owl decor. The little hallway to the restrooms, had a rather dramatic arched entrance... and more framed owl art. The Ladies Room extra quite bright, with colorful, owl murals. I was a bit thrown by the lack of privacy between toilets. I found that downright amusing!
I returned to my stool and studied a little more owl art before we headed off. I wish I could have talked to the older man beside me. Maybe he knew people who had stories about the nuclear bomb, that was detonated just 28 miles away in 1945.
"Here It Is"
As we headed to the car, I looked at the building and tried to imagine how this rambling building could have been a grocery store plus bar. If only Rowena Baca had been there. She inherited The Owl from her parents, Frank and Dee. She was a child back when the Owl Burger was born, so I imagine she has some stories.
It was a yummy and interesting road trip stop, for sure! We had lots to think about, as we got back on the road.
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.