There are certain traditions that are best left untouched. In Santa Fe, one of those culinary traditions involves the green chile, a beloved native pepper known for its hot and sweet character and myriad uses. At Santa Fe Bite, green chile is found in one of its most beloved expressions: a top-notch green chile cheeseburger that's one of the best burgers in the country. Owners John and Bonnie Eckre have been cooking in Santa Fe for decades, many hours of which were spent creating green chile cheeseburgers at the beloved Bobcat Bite. When they closed shop there in 2013 following a landlord dispute, the couple opened Santa Fe Bite in downtown Santa Fe. And while there were tweaks to the menu, the heart of the green chile cheeseburger remained the same.
There are few secrets when it comes to the burger itself. The simple combination of beef, diced roasted green chile, and melted cheese is "simple and elegant," John Eckre says. "When you try to enhance it beyond that point, I think you take away from it. I'm a burger minimalist."
"The flavor and hotness [of green chile] enhance the flavor of red meat like no other condiment can. It’s a perfect topping."
In true minimalist fashion, every aspect of the burger has been studied — particularly how it's cooked. "I've got this obsession with cast iron and I like working with metal," Eckre says, before explaining how he hand-made all three of the restaurant's cast-iron flat grills. Before diving into the restaurant world, Eckre worked in welding and construction, and the grills are a point of pride. "You can't find them on the market and that's one of our 'secrets.'"
Sure, some things have changes since the Bobcat days. John Eckre usually mans the grill for a couple hours each day; Bonnie Eckre bakes for three to four hours a day, creating the restaurant's desserts. The burger patty's weight has gone up an ounce. Two of the three grills were made new for Santa Fe Bite. But they're selling as many green chile cheeseburgers as ever, some 450 on a busy day. "It's very popular and a really big deal," says Eckre of green chile burgers in New Mexico. "People think it's weird, but when we go somewhere else and they don't have green chile, we think it's weird." Green chile, Eckre still believes after all these years, is "a perfect topping."
Below, the elements of the Santa Fe Bite green chile cheeseburger:
1. The Bun
"When I first started at the Bobcat they were using a fast-food bun purveyor that I won't name," Eckre recalls. "Our burgers are so juicy that they quickly melted through those buns. They turned to nothing and tasted like paper. I hated those freaking buns." When it came time to find an alternative, he took the advice of a regular customer whose father owned Fano Bread Company in Albuquerque. After tasting through, Eckre decided on a custom-recipe brioche bun. "It's a really good bun. It goes with our burger and it holds up to the juiciness."
While some burger aficionados may bristle at even the suggestion of brioche, Eckre remains committed. "It's not a really sweet brioche." The buns are baked fresh daily and delivered each morning. When it comes time to make the burgers, each bun gets a smear of garlic butter and a toasting on the griddle. "That's a separate griddle-top" from the cast-iron burger grill, Eckre explains. "Someday I mean to change that out."
2. The Patty
Eckre gets his beef delivered freshly ground daily from the Western Way, a local supplier in nearby Moriarty, NM that processes local cows from start to finish. "I was grinding myself for a couple years, but our volume got so high," Eckre says, noting that the restaurant didn't have the electric capacity to carry the five-horsepower grinder he would have needed to keep going. "They've never missed a beat. Now I'm so busy cooking and selling, I wouldn't have time to grind anyway."
Eckre prefers a beef blend of 90 percent chuck and 10 percent sirloin. "Sirloin is very lean, you don't want to use too much of it," he explains of this blend that's the result of decades of burger-making expertise. "It has actually less flavor than the chuck; it's a very delicate flavor." Eckre and his crew hand-form 10-ounce burger patties, even though the tradition at the Bobcat had been to do nine-ounce patties. "I thought, 'Why nine? That's peculiar.' I didn't want to go smaller, so I went to 10, a nice round number." That was 15 years ago. "If I changed it now, I'd be in so much trouble." Eckre instructs his crew not to "break the corners of the burger," which, since the patty is circular, is almost a philosophical mandate. "You want to form them into proper balls so you don't have cracks forming, as the juice will flow out as it cooks," he says. Eckre also makes sure his team doesn't press the burgers too hard, since "there's a fine line between too dense and not dense enough."
Next, it's time to cook the burgers on the flat-top cast-iron grills that Eckre built from culinary-grade cast iron from a Texas foundry— the newest has been seasoning for two years, the oldest for 10. As soon as the burgers hit the grill, they're seasoned. The blend is simple enough — salt, pepper, garlic salt, onion salt — but Bonnie Eckre is the keeper of the ratio. Whenever the team runs out of the mix, she dives into the kitchen and makes a new batch. "We try not to do anything to clutter up the taste of the high-quality meat." The kitchen can turn out up to 36 burgers at a time, batching them out so they don't all finish at once.
After covering the burgers for a minute to get the cooking process started, Eckre flips the burgers and adds a weight, pressing it once — note he's not smashing the burger or pressing it continuously. The weight helps the burgers "not blow up" and expand out of control. Pressing only in the beginning ensures that juices created as the burger cooks stay inside the burger. The weight also helps prevent crumbling, Eckre explains.
3. The Green Chile
After the burgers flip, Eckre spoons on a generous portion of the iconic green chile. Eckre uses peppers from Hatch, NM — which he describes as the "most popular" region for chile peppers. The peppers are roasted, peeled, chopped, and delivered to Eckre, who warms them before serving. "I'd have to open a separate facility to roast our own chile," he explains. "We use over 4,000 pounds a year." And while he thinks highly of all New Mexican peppers, he is adamant about only using green chile on the burger. "The flavor and the hotness enhance the flavor of red meat like no other condiment can. It's a perfect topping."
4. The Cheese
Next comes a slice of cheese, a blend of Swiss and American Eckre gets from the Southwestern company LaBatt. It's mild, so it "doesn't overpower the flavors of the meat or the chile." Some other things Eckre likes about this particular slice: "It melts nicely;" "it looks really pretty;" and "it works in perfect harmony with the other flavors."
5. The Extras
While the menu offers fries and onion rings, a classic green chile burger at Santa Fe Bite is served with housemade potato chips. Lettuce and tomato also come standard.
So can anyone make a Santa Fe Bite-worthy green chile burger? "If you get a well-seasoned cast-iron pan; if you know how to cook on it without ruining the seasoning; then finding fresh quality ground chuck... you can do it," says Eckre. "Anybody can do it," he says, before delivering the kicker. "But you have to be set up for it, and we're set up for it everyday."