One Killer Burger

santa-fe-grill-war_Bonnie-and-John-EckreCharles Bent was killed on January 19, 1847. Billy the Kid got shot dead on July 14, 1881. Pat Garrett bought the farm on February 29, 1908. But the worst date in New Mexico history?

June 9, 2013. When the Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe, New Mexico, closed.

A carnivore’s heaven and a vegetarian’s hell, the Bobcat Bite was renown for its hamburgers, specifically a green chile work of art. The legendary eatery was this rag’s “Restaurant of the Year” in our 2012 Best of the West Source Book. It also earned accolades from other respectable magazines, including GQ and Bon Appétit.

Yet it all ended in a range—er, grill—war worse than those bloody feuds in Colfax and Lincoln Counties.

In a nutshell, the landlord—we won’t mention his miserable name to prevent a justifiable lynching—and John and Bonnie Eckre, who have been running the Bite for some 12 years, got into a tiff over the lease, the building (a former trading post and gun shop) and even the name of the business.

In fairness (yes, I’m a rabble-rouser, but one with a journalism degree from a respectable university), the Eckres didn’t start the Bobcat Bite. It dated to 1953, when the late Mitzi Panzer’s mother started the business on Old Las Vegas Highway. Bonnie didn’t arrive until she began waitressing in 1989. I first ate there in 1998, and it was a good burger then. But John and Bonnie took the Bobcat to a new level.

“This place felt like home to a lot of customers,” Bonnie, fighting back tears, tells me. “We wanted everyone to feel like family. Sometimes, they’d come inside and say, ‘We’re home.’”

It felt like home. Once, while driving my son and a friend to baseball practice, I overheard this conversation:

Jack: “What are you going to do when your major league baseball career is over?”

Friend: “I’ll be a sportscaster. What are you going to do when your major league career is over?”

Jack: “I’m going to work at the Bobcat Bite.”

Bonnie and John let the evil land baron take his building. So, on June 9, the Bobcat served its last meals. Hundreds of them. People started showing up at 8 a.m., three hours before the Bobcat opened.

“The end of an era,” acclaimed jeweler Douglas Magnus said that day. “A sad day for Santa Fe.”

Proof of their white hats, the Eckres donated proceeds from that last day to the nonprofit Kitchen Angels, which delivers meals to people in need.

In the weeks afterward, I tried to find green chile cheeseburgers that might come close to matching the Bobcat’s, but who can prepare natural boneless chuck and sirloin into freshly ground 10-ounce masterpieces?

But this is the West, where people come to reinvent themselves. Where even Billy the Kid (if you buy the Brushy Bill theory, which we don’t) can rise from his grave.

In August, the Eckres opened the newly christened Santa Fe Bite at Garrett’s Desert Inn in town on Old Santa Fe Trail.

“We always wanted to serve milkshakes,” Bonnie says, “but couldn’t because our kitchen was too small. And John always wanted to make breakfast. He makes wonderful pancakes.”

These days, the Santa Fe Bite is hopping. Down on Old Las Vegas Highway, the old Bobcat Bite building sits empty. Once, just before noon and up until closing time, it resembled the Long Branch Saloon on Saturday night. Now it’s a ghost town.

Justice has been served…with lettuce, tomatoes, white American cheese and fresh, wonderful, spicy green chiles—and one killer burger.

 

Johnny D. Boggs has yet to tackle the Santa Fe Bite’s new “Big Bite”—a 16-ounce burger served with fries, salad and garlic bread for $17.50.

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