How the Owl Bar's Green Chile Cheeseburgers Fueled the Atom Bomb Scientists

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Green chile cheeseburger from the Owl Bar. [Photograph: Roadfood.com]

James Beard award-winning food writer Jason Sheehan tells the story (his "hands-down favorite food story ever") of how green chile cheeseburgers fed the minds in charge of making the atomic bomb in "The Birth of the Atomic Cheeseburger" over at Gilt Taste.

The summary: In 1939, J.E. Miera started renting out cabins, selling gas, and providing phone service in San Antonio, New Mexico. In 1945, his major customers were scientists working on the Manhattan Project. With these steady customers, Miera's son Frank Chavez saw the opportunity to expand the business and opened the Owl where he served them beer and, eventually, green chile cheeseburgers. As for how the idea to make green chile cheeseburgers came about, Sheehan says,

The story goes a few different ways: That it was Frank's idea alone, that it was a request from one of the MP's who'd begun to filter into town—a man late of California where both the cheeseburger and the green chile were already close friends—or that it was an order, coming down direct from someone at Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was headquartered. It's the third version that carries weight with me. The notion of Uncle Sam, Harry Truman and Robert Oppenheimer demanding cheeseburgers to fuel the midnight genius of these odd and sunburned nerds just moves me. And it makes sense, too. It had to occur to someone, somewhere, that having the best brains in America getting all liquored up and tear-assing across the desert in the middle of the night looking for tacos was just a phenomenally bad idea. Eventually, one of these guys was doubtless going to wrap himself around a cactus at 60 miles an hour. And it'd be a shame, too, because there just weren't any tacos to be had anyway.

Today the Owl Bar & Café is run by Chavez's daughter, Rowen Baca, and her husband, and they're still known for their green chile cheeseburgers—"the best cheeseburgers in the world," according to Sheehan. His description:

It's a thin patty, hand-formed from fresh ground beef, topped with cheese, chopped lettuce and roasted, chopped Hatch and Luna County green chiles. Smoky-hot, sweet, tender and messy all at the same time, it's a burger worth lingering over; that has been perfected across the decades by a kitchen that doesn't do much else.

Read more about the Owl Bar's history at Gilt Taste. Has anyone else had burgers at the Owl Bar?