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 Nov 15 - 21, 2012 

Restaurant Review

Route 66 Malt Shop

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

We cherish Route 66 around here. America’s first fully paved highway is very much a part of Albuquerque’s story. It connected our town to the rest of the U.S. and allowed ease of travel like never before. It brought tourists in greater numbers than even the railroad. Numerous mom-and-pop businesses sprang up and flourished in the highway’s neon wake.

One of the most iconic businesses was the ‘50s-style malt and burger shop. Where Route 66 tied the cities and states of the U.S. together, the malt shop provided a place for people to gather without resorting to disreputable bars or the formal setting of the church. Families could enjoy a casual dinner, teenagers could mingle and flirt, and travelers could stop in for a quick bite. Throw in a jukebox loaded with early rock and roll music, and you’d be hard pressed to find a purer distillation of mid-20th century Americana.

The dessert du jour is always freshly baked in-house.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The dessert du jour is always freshly baked in-house.

No wonder, then, that Central, Albuquerque’s stretch of the old Mother Road, is home to the Route 66 Malt Shop. It’s a restaurant that attempts to capture the spirit of that storied era while also addressing the foodie concerns of the Nob Hill neighborhood it calls home.

The bleu cheese green chile cheeseburger is made from local beef.
The bleu cheese green chile cheeseburger is made from local beef.

The Route 66 Malt Shop (not to be confused with the 66 Diner further west on Central) is pretty much everything you’d expect from a faux -’50s burger joint. There’s neon. A checkered floor. Black-and-white photographs of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe on the walls. A jukebox featuring Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Yet, the atmosphere doesn’t feel forced as it often does at other theme restaurants. The bustle in the kitchen, the easy camaraderie of the serving staff and the genuine interest when the waiter asks “You guys doing all right?” all signal that this place is the real deal, a legitimate family-run gathering spot that happens to showcase a classic part of American history.

There’s a reason this beef is so juicy and lean: It’s local, from Carlsbad, and all-natural with no growth hormones added.

That authenticity extends, thankfully, to the food. Let’s start with the drinks. Order up a root beer, and what you get is not a can of Barq’s or A&W but rather a frosted mug of a sweet and woody concoction made right there in the restaurant. The flavors vary from day to day. Sometimes the bitter root taste of sarsaparilla comes to the fore. Other times sweet vanilla or anise stands out. No matter what though, the drink inspires a contemplative refreshment that an HFCS-laden major brand never will. The same goes for the lemonade—the lemons aren’t even squeezed until you request a glass, and the staff is happy to sweeten it to taste.

The building may be new, but its design is classic.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The building may be new, but its design is classic.

The menu features eight burgers, and they are all beautiful. Well, not exactly beautiful, I suppose. They look like your standard burgers, but they smell and taste like the ideal state of the sandwich. The patty that forms the foundation for each is thick and juicy, and if you ask for it medium rare, it arrives just as it should—with a wet red center. Get the green chile cheeseburger and the chile is fresh and smoky and spicy; try it with bleu cheese and it will fill your head with powerful, tangy flavor. Ask for the Cadillac burger with thick peppery bacon on top, and you’ll be gurgling in ecstasy like Homer Simpson. And if you still can’t get enough, upgrade to the half-pound Duesen Burger.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

There’s a reason this beef is so juicy and lean: It’s local, from Carlsbad, and all-natural with no growth hormones added.

Unfortunately, the burger bun isn’t quite up to the task of providing a solid, edible platform. Within a few bites, the bread is just destroyed, a soggy mass that disintegrates between your fingers and falls back into the basket. But if you’re like me, you’ll be so focused on the meat that you won’t care that your fingers are covered in mustard and smushed bread and beef juice. Just grab a handful of napkins and carry on.

Not in the mood for a burger? Other options include a BBQ sandwich (pictured), salmon burger and frito pie.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Not in the mood for a burger? Other options include a BBQ sandwich (pictured), salmon burger and frito pie.

Somehow, if you can possibly summon the room for it after gorging on the burger, there’s a dessert menu you should not pass up. Let me put it this way: Too many restaurants have no idea what a malt is. If you order one, you’ll just get a milkshake nine times out of 10. Not so here. This malt is made the way it should be, with plenty of malt powder and just the right amount of bittersweet aftertaste. You can get one in pretty much any flavor you desire: chocolate, peanut butter, dreamsicle, banana, pineapple.

If a masterfully made malt doesn’t scratch that dessert itch, there are plenty of others, from depression-era treats like egg cream sodas and phosphates to the always fresh-baked dessert du jour (strawberry-rhubarb pie, raspberry-chocolate cake, or whatever else owner Diane Avila is inspired to whip up that day.) And there’s always the option of dropping a scoop of ice cream into that root beer.

A lot has changed in Albuquerque—and America—since the Mother Road first traversed our city. But even as our leaders struggle to find the right balance between new development on Central and honoring 66's historic past, it's comforting to know you can stop by the Route 66 Malt Shop and enjoy a damn fine green chile cheeseburger and a chocolate malt while Elvis plays on the jukebox.

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Route 66 Malt Shop
3800 Central SE
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday
Price Range: $3.75-$7.95
Vibe: Homey throwback
Vegetarian and vegan options: Vegetarian garden burger
Extras: Daily meal and dessert specials, well-stocked jukebox
Alibi recommends: Bleu Cheese Green Chile Cheeseburger
 
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