A rose by any other name
From its humble and often disputed beginnings to its rise as America’s iconic gastronomic offering, the hamburger is a symbol of everything that’s right and wrong with this nation. It stands for the New World transformation of immigrant foods, and for our country’s rapidly expanding waistlines. Hamburgers illustrate the American dream of mastering capitalism through hard work and ingenuity, or the American habit of overindulgence and instant gratification. Either way, there’s no getting around how tasty they are.
Why else would every region in the U.S. serve patties with its own local flair? Hawaii slathers on teriyaki sauce, Texas sticks to mustard, and here in the Land of Enchantment we spice things up with green chile. Albuquerque even ups the ante. Green chile is terrific, but topping a burger with red chile sauce lets the rest of the state know that Burqueños are a sophisticated breed.
Wimpy’s, near Old Town on Mountain, is one of those places that lists red chile burgers at the top of its menu. Called a "little red" ($3.29, medium), a meaty, perfectly grilled all-beef patty is topped with lettuce, onion and thick, piquant red chile, then bundled in a billowy white bun. The bun soaks up the sauce and clings to the meat, bringing all the flavors together. It drives home the point that bucking convention can be very tasty.
But wait a minute—the Wimpy formula rings a bell. Hasn’t the Red Ball Café been serving that same burger in Barelas since the ’30s? And don’t they call it a Wimpy burger? What’s the story, morning glory?
Gene Quintano of Wimpy’s acknowledges the similarities but is quick to point out there is no affiliation between Wimpy’s and Red Ball. And while Red Ball may serve Wimpy burgers, Quintano maintains “Ours taste like the original: Theirs don’t.”
Having never tried an "original" Wimpy burger—Red Ball closed in the ’80s and reopened under different owners in the ’90s—I can’t say if he’s right or not. Quintano goes further, saying, “They may have the original building but not the original recipe. Our recipe isn’t the same but it’s closer than theirs.”
Them’s fightin’ words, if you ask me, and words that embody another aspect of the burger business. No matter where you go, the authenticity and history of hamburgers in general is hotly debated. Who did what first, who does it right and, of course, who does it better are all questions that are fiercely grappled over. Wimpy’s has been grilling their goods for nearly 18 years in different locations, while the reincarnated Red Ball has been at it slightly longer. But does Red Ball have ownership of the legacy just because they have the name? It'll take a better woman than me to sort that one out.
Wimpy's burgers are served either on a bun or tortilla and can be ordered small ($2.09), medium ($3.29) or large ($4.49). Combos with fries and a drink are priced from $4.95 to $8.95. Cheese and chile (in either color) never cost extra. In fact, Quintano says he's reputed for guaranteed satisfaction. I don’t doubt it. On my first visit, he enthusiastically explained the whole menu to me and made suggestions. Mind you, this was during the lunch rush while at least 15 people were in line behind me.
When a to-go order is up, a Wimpy's waitress, diminutive in stature but hearty in voice, calls it out over the din of the midday crowd and never forgets to double-check that everything is just right. When she asks how you’re doing, she's not just being polite; she's genuinely interested.
Some may find a collection of Marilyn Monroe photos, framed and arranged like family pictures, to be overly kitschy and stereotypical of nostalgic hamburger stands. But much like everything else Wimpy’s puts forth, they're in earnest.
I can’t say if this place serves the best Wimpy burger in town, but what I can say is this: The burgers are topnotch. Claims to fame are fine, but fresh ingredients that don’t hit the griddle until your order hits the counter, and service that's almost shocking in its sincerity, go a lot farther. Like that sonnet-writing Brit said, “What’s in a name?”