I get a kick out of this place, and it's not just from the kitschy, retro décor and memorabilia that lines the walls and fills the curio cabinet, or even the music that rockets me back to my adolescence, putting me in the mood for '50s fare. The space is a former gas station that's been converted into a mini malt shop with a short counter and just a few tables, including a couple put out in the parking lot during warmer months.
I get the biggest kick out of chief cook and bottle washer, Diane Avila. Her enthusiasm is unbridled and her exuberance infectious. On my first visit I asked if there were any specials not listed on the menu. Diane's eyes widened to saucer size and a toothy grin covered her face as she blurted, “Oh, you've gotta try the green chile chicken posole ($3.50 bowl, $1.95 cup)! I pulled the meat from a whole roasted chicken. It's really good.” The lady did not lie. It was great. Homemade chicken broth was crowded with meaty, juicy chunks of chicken, tender posole kernels and delicious, spicy green chile. It was a welcome variation on the more traditional pork and red chile version I usually have.
The daily special was a surprise, too--a salmon burger ($5.95). No sad reformation of canned salmon here. It was a savory, flaky patty made with moist, fresh salmon, nicely browned and then garnished with lettuce, tomato and a dollop of aïoli (garlic mayonnaise).
The menu is quite extensive, considering the tiny open kitchen space. Several of my favorite sandwiches are available, including a tightly stacked turkey club ($5.75), B.L.T. with lots of crisp bacon ($4.95), and a gooey grilled cheese with tomato ($3.25). You can also get a pint-sized stuffed baked potato with all the fixin's ($2.25) or a Frito pie with beef, beans, cheese and red chile ($4.50).
Diane and her partner Eric Szeman are the driving force that makes this authentic mom and pop operation a bright spot on 66, “the Mother Road.” Quality is crucial for this hard-working duo. When I complemented Eric on the tasty patty melt I'd just enjoyed, he was quick to point out that he gets lean hamburger meat freshly ground at one of the city's few remaining independent butcher shops. He boasted, ”A quarter pound of meat yields just about a quarter pound burger after it's cooked.” The onions on my patty melt were caramelized on the grill, and the side of chopped green chile was a perfect addition. This chile here has been tampered with. There's a little herb flavor, a little seasoning, not your usual plain jolt of capsaicin. But there's not a french fry in sight—because a deep fryer wouldn't work in such a small space. Most sandwiches come solo, but you may order a side of darned good potato salad or golden hash browns that can also be tampered with; I like to add green chile and onions to the mix.
Diane loves to play with her food, especially when it comes to creating a new dessert concoction. She bores easily, so you could find just about anything on her special dessert menu. I love the strawberry chiffon pie made with a vanilla cookie crust ($2.50). The pie filling is true chiffon made with fresh berries and egg whites, not strawberry flavored gelatin. A scribble of strawberry sauce and a dollop of real whipped cream add just the right finishing touch. She does wonders with chocolate, too. Try her moist chocolate pudding cake with chocolate ganache and a pudding center ($2.50). Consider yourself lucky if you're there when she does the layered pistachio pudding with crumbled cookies and whipped cream in a tall fancy glass.
Old-fashioned soda fountain treats like phosphates, malts, sundaes, banana splits and even egg creams, are all first rate. Don't miss the freshly squeezed lemon or limeade ($2.50). Premium ice cream and J Huntington Smith toppings and syrups, the Cadillac of soda fountain flavorings, are used exclusively.
Root beer floats rule and are made with award winning house-made root beer. Luke Cole is a root beer aficionado who publishes a top ten list of America's best brews on his website www.lukecole.com. He uses eight different parameters for judging and has ranked Eric's brew third place on his top ten list of root beers from all over the country. Your first frosty mug ($2) will explain why all the brouhaha. I can't remember tasting a better root beer.
This is the perfect spot to bring your out of town guests during that requisite tour of Old Town. You can even take a pedi-cab ride after lunch, but you'll have to call first to reserve. The place is easy to miss, so watch for the nifty jukebox shaped neon sign on the south side of Central a few blocks north of Rio Grande. Mom and pop shops are disappearing quickly as cloned chain drugstores sprout up like weeds on every other corner. So get your kicks on Route 66 and help support this endangered species of Americana. A large part of the lunch business is delivered to loyal lawyers and other Downtown offices. Free delivery is offered within the neighborhood; call for details.
Route 66 Malt Shop and Grill; 1720 Central Ave. SW; (505) 242-7866; Hours: M-Sat 11:00 a.m- 8:00 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive; Cash or local checks.