Monday, July 4, 2016

Molly's Atomic Green Chile Cheeseburgers

Don't worry, they're not radioactive!

Is any other food quite as perfect as a good hamburger? I don't think so, and I'm pretty sure the popularity of burger chains and shops prove I'm not alone in thinking this. While they're not my hands down favorite food of all time (here's looking at you, chili), after going a few weeks without, I often find myself craving a nice, juicy burger with crisp lettuce, melty cheese, and definitely some tomato and onion in there. One of the things I miss most about going to college is the burger place near my dorm room. There was really nothing better after a long, long week of arguing about World War II and educating people about why Jamestown is worth studying than stopping by UBurger and bringing home dinner.

Apparently, this particular burger was also enjoyed by people looking for a good snack after a long day's work, and can easily be enjoyed by you today on Fourth of July, Memorial Day, or any traditionally cookout oriented holiday. Or just any day of the week! It's super simple, while also putting enough of a spin on the classic burger that I can definitely see why it was popular with certain scientists hanging out in New Mexico during World War II. Read on to find out more!

I was first clued into this interesting bit of historical trivia courtesy of Andrew Zimmern, as part of the not very good show on the Cooking Channel called Delicious Destinations. I say it's not very good because the show is so obviously trying to pretend Andrew is actually visiting these places, but is actually talking on a green screen with an image of a restaurant projected behind him. Kind of lazy, if you ask me!

Anyway, one of the few episodes I watched talked about interesting and unusual places to eat in New Mexico. As we've learned thanks to our friend Josefina, New Mexican cuisine is distinctly different from TexMex or other Americanized Mexican styles of cooking, and New Mexicans are fiercely proud of this fact. One of the staples of New Mexican food culture is the use of red and green chiles, which we've talked about before. Although these days, these are ingredients you can usually get some access to no matter where you live in the US, they definitely weren't something you'd see in your average grocery store outside of the southwest during the 1940's. Generally speaking, Americans were still a little cautious about eating foods outside of their own family traditions, and there just wasn't the same kind of market for unusual or exotic ingredients for the average person the way things are now.

Why is this important? Because in New Mexico, people have been using green chiles as a burger topping for decades, and the scientists who relocated to Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project apparently completely fell in love with them! The Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico says that during the war, scientists from the project would come down to enjoy their burgers after a long day in the lab, and they still make their burgers in the same way on the same grill as they did in 1945! Pretty cool. If I'm ever in New Mexico, I'll definitely need to detour to this place just to say I'm eating an authentic Atomic Cheeseburger.

There are a few different versions of how this burger came about at this specific location, just like there almost always is when we're talking about a food origin story. The first story says that the owner of the restaurant came up with the idea. The second says it was something an MP from California who was already familiar with the concept of adding green chiles to a cheeseburger. The third and final - and probably the coolest - story suggests the order came directly from Los Alamos, which noted food writer James Sheehan says also potentially makes the most sense. Better to have a favorite snack closer to the facility so people with nuclear secrets weren't running loose in New Mexico looking for something to munch on in the middle of the night!

The burger served at the restaurant is delightfully simple, while still being incredibly tasty according to its many visitors. I have to say, the original combination of thin burger, cheese, lettuce, onions, tomato and chiles with cheddar cheese sounds like a well dressed burger without being too overloaded. My sister and her boyfriend like burgers with lots of toppings on them, but I'm definitely more simple in my tastes. For that reason, and because this is a really unique part of World War II history, I decided I would try my hand at making my own "Atomic Burger" and sharing the results with you guys!

As I'm sure we all know, burgers are very simple to cook, and one of the reasons they've remained so popular in American homes and restaurants is because they're a very efficient, cost effective way of getting a good serving of protein. That being said, I've actually only ever cooked one burger completely unassisted before, and so I'm still something of a novice at this skill. Unfortunately, I'm also really paranoid about eating under cooked beef, and it can be a tiny bit tricky to tell if your burger is a nice medium, or a totally well done hockey puck.

Fearlessly, I defrosted my burger patty, got lots of salt and pepper on it, and tossed it in a frying pan with some butter to cook. While it was simmering, I coated the raw side with more salt and pepper.

After it had cooked for about four minutes on one side, I flipped it, got out a slice of cheddar cheese, and... immediately regretted my decision to put the cheese on, because I was suddenly worried the burger hadn't cooked all the way through on the other side yet. You can't exactly un-cheese a cheeseburger, so I was forced to just wait and hope for the best.

There are also some tips and tricks for testing if a burger's done or not. Apparently, a good medium burger will feel about the same way your second thumb joint does when you poke it with the pad of your finger.

Once the burger cooked for another seven or so minutes on this side - I waited longer to make sure it was cooked! - I took it out of the pan, stuck it on a bun, and started topping it. Since I was eating alone, I didn't chop up an onion because I figured it would go to waste if I was the only one home to eat it, so this isn't a wholly authentic Owl Bar burger.

Unfortunately, since I live in a part of the country without New Mexican chiles within easy access, the chiles also aren't truly authentic. I had to make do with the stuff out of the can. Maybe someday I'll live near a grocery store that imports them, but today is not that day.

I don't know what exactly happened here, but my burger ended up being kind of massive! My patty was definitely on the thicker side, and my tomato wasn't really sliced thinly, but still. This was a pretty big mouthful! I don't like burgers or sandwiches where it feels like you need to suddenly mutate into Snake-Girl and unhinge your jaw to get it all in one bite, but oh well. Still tasty.

For the curious, I didn't under cook my burger and thus didn't get food poisoning. Hooray! Always a good thing in my book. That being said, see how I served this on a red paper plate? Whenever I leaned forward to take a bite out of the burger, I recoiled in shock for a moment thinking the center was still totally raw! But when I leaned back and looked at it in better lighting, I realized the plate was reflecting its color onto the meet, making it look really underdone. Oops!

Here's where my version of the Atomic Burger kinda fell apart... It wasn't spicy! The green chiles in a can don't taste like much of anything to me, and I'm totally certain if you have this with authentic roasted New Mexican chiles you'd be singing a different tune when it comes to heat and flavor. I was pretty disappointed, but also not really super surprised. Some things hold up to canning well, and I guess these just aren't one of them! Oh well, guess it gives me another excuse to visit New Mexico and eat at the Owl Bar myself!

I'm always looking for authentic recipes and foods my favorite historical figures would have enjoyed, and while the Manhattan Project isn't one of my favorite historical topics to learn absolutely everything about, it would still be cool to walk in their footsteps and sample one of their favorite dishes from the same grill they would have ordered from. Talk about a taste of history!

If only we could hop in the car and get going right now...


  1. I too suck at burger cooking times. My solution is to brown both sides before simmering them in sauce until the liquid is reduced to my liking.