The Red Ball Café
There's nothing wimpy about it
Life in the Southwest wasn't easy 75 years ago. We had massive unemployment, the average income was just $1,368 a year and prohibition was killing the party vibe. Still, if there was a silver lining on our Depression-era cloud, you could find it in Barelas—in the form of a hot, juicy "Wimpy" burger at the Red Ball Café. They only cost a nickel, after all.
Who doesn't remember our favorite linguistically challenged sailor man, Popeye, and his burger-mooching compadre J. Wellington Wimpy? (He'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.) Wimpy is alive and well, gracing the nostalgic walls of the Red Ball Café, waiting for you to do him proud by ordering a sack of beef and buns.
I recently had the pleasure of dining at this Barelas landmark, where I had a great meal and a history lesson, all in the same booth—quite a bargain.
I sat down amid the lunchtime chaos and received service like I was the only one in the restaurant. I immediately felt right at home and ordered a fat combination plate ($5.90) with an enchilada, tamale, beef taco, beans, rice and a house specialty snack called "chispas," which are thick, deep-fried flour tortilla slices.
My food landed at my table so fast I thought Scotty had beamed it down; and the tamale was down my hatch quicker than you can say, "ship's ahoy!" The beans were rich and creamy, the taco stuffed with beef and lettuce, and the cheese enchilada was filled with nuggets of melted cheddar cheese.
Don't think I didn't try one of their famous Wimpy burgers. The perfect snack, these tasty little treats are why some New Mexicans get up in the morning. I don't know who first thought to combine soft white buns with beef patties and red chile sauce, but they deserve a comfy spot in food nirvana.
While I was eating, I noticed that the table I was sitting at (and several others around me) was a showcase for Barelas history. The clear plastic table covers housed various old and new newspaper clippings, all about the history of the neighborhood and the phoenix-rising story of the Red Ball Café.
I learned from a 1996 Albuquerque Tribune article that back in the '30s "Wimpys were the White Castles [burgers] of Albuquerque, only better." Former owner Nestor Padilla was reputed to be a generous man, giving out his signature burgers to vagrants. His recipe for red chile sauce was tenaciously guarded, but for the nominal sum of five cents, you could buy a Wimpy burger and forget the trials and tribulations of the Great Depression for a minute.
The Red Ball Café closed down in the late '80s, and remained an empty, boarded-up relic until the city purchased the building in 1996 for $70,000 as part of their $1.7 million streetscape cleanup project on Fourth Street. It was put out to bid with three conditions of ownership: Its historical value had to be maintained, a business must be operated there and Barelas residents must be employed there.
As I read on, I discovered that owner Jim Chavez took a mighty leap of faith and purchased the derelict property for $10,000 and undertook the Herculean feat of resurrecting this old-time eatery for posterity—and the benefit of the future.
That was quite a lot to take in over lunch, but the thought of a pineapple empanada for dessert helped yank me out of the past. Today's Red Ball Café has a menu that would make the old timers sing, with New Mexican tacos, burritos, tostadas and chicharrones, and also a full cache of burgers and hot dogs to remember the good old days. The Wimpy burger is no longer a nickel, but still modestly priced at 99 cents: A sack or two would make a nice snack, and a burger a day keeps the salads away. Historically speaking, the Red Ball Café had a helluva heyday, but the future's not looking too bad either.