I've seen this place. No really. Road travelling through New Mexico there were a bunch of Blake's Lotaburger on the side of the highway but we never stopped to try out the food. For some reason we just kept on going and when we finally were out of the "land of enchantment" we kinda forgot all about that Lotaburger stand and continued on with our lives, free to pursue other burger spots and a career of religious fulfillment.
Then a few months ago it was announced that a Lotaburger was coming to Tucson. Oh. Okay. Cool. I guess.
And that's when locals began losing their frikkin minds!
|Here it is...and...okay|
As a California native, we just took having In-N-Out Burgers every five miles or so apart for granted. They were and are, and will be, always there. It was just road food for me. When driving for a while and you need a fairly expedient, satisfying and reasonable grub stop, the go to was In-N-Out.
But do you remember when one opened up here in Tucson a few years ago? Dude, it was like the second coming of the Meat Messiah. The lines coiled around blocks to get a sample of the West Coast style fries and burgs. It wasn't as if they were giving away free food or that the In-N-Out was suddenly the only place to get a quicky lunch here in Tucson...it's just a burger, man!
I mean, it is a tasty burger...but still.
So when folks started flipping about this Lotaburger joint, of course we had to get a sample and see what all the hype was about.
|Packed parking lot and crazy long drive thru lines|
Started back in the 50's by a guy named Blake Chanslor, Lotaburger quickly became a staple in the Albuquerque fast food quadrant, eventually expanding to other New Mexico cities to reign supreme in fry grease and cheese. Famous for featuring fresh roasted green chiles on their burgers, the chain soon became a local favorite earning the title of 'Best Green Chile Burger in the World' by National Geographic and now, ladies and gentlereaders...Tucson has one.
Friends who needed a Lotaburger fix asap braved the early soft opening chaos only to report that it took almost an hour at times to get their food. For a burger. When I asked if it was worth the hour wait, the response was a resounding:
|Patrons lining up to start waiting to wait|
Just "eh" for a burger you waited for up to an hour to eat? Oh man. But then others chimed in claiming that it beats In-N-Out by tenfold in flavors and concept. Heck, Lotaburger even serves up breakfast burritos (take that Taco Bell!) so now it was like 50/50 as far as what I was to expect from this place.
The dust had (sorta) settled from its big grand opening and I got there fairly early, like 10:30 am, on a Wednesday. I got parking right next to the front door so I had thought I lucked out. If you can get rockstar parking at a popular joint, bets are that it's not as hoppin' as it usually is or could be, so I opened the door and stepped inside.
There was a decent amount of people in there and a fair bustle of activity, just not the turmoil I had come to expect. I suppose at such a non-lunch/too late for breakfast time frame this light smattering of burger hungry patrons was to kind of be expected.
Here's the thing: This Lotaburger is pretty small and is set up quite oddly. When you first walk in you immediately are set to queue for your order. The main dining area is off to your left and there are a few tables within butt height and distance to the right. There was one employee on the register who had a few folks asking questions and placing orders with her under a fairly paired down and basic menu which stretched out above them all. The kitchen behind her was a squall of food hustle though. People were running around putting items in bags, manning the grills, taking orders from the drive thru window, slapping meat on buns and then running out to the floor and yelling out numbers.
"Number 283!?", announced a team member in a white shirt which was immediately followed by a dude raising his hand, claiming that he was number 283 and then was handed a sack full of steamy beef promise. Wow, at 10:30 am they were already up to almost 300 orders.
|Here it is: the Lotaburger with green chiles|
I was standing behind a guy whom I thought was in line, but when the line in front of him began to surge forward the dude didn't move. So I asked him if he was in line. He then turned around and stated that he had already ordered and was just waiting. Huh. So I moved up past him and prepared to order.
Looking around I noticed lots of folks just standing there, holding tickets, staring at the general register/kitchen area hoping their order pops up next. In fact, there were more people waiting for their food in the designated order line than there were actual people gearing up to order food. So people would come in, see some person standing in the queue area, queue behind that person and just stand there like idiots thinking they were in the line, when in fact the real line was a few heads down a notch, being blocked by folks who were just hanging out and waiting for their order to arrive. There is no wait station or area to hang out in as you anticipate someone calling out your ticket number. Kind of a bad move on the Lotaburger design team if you ask me. People just milling about the dining space clutching ticket orders while other people nibble on drippy sandwiches just looked uncomfortable for all parties involved.
So I placed my order, three burgers with green chiles, to go, grabbed my ticket and tried to find a spot where I wouldn't be confused with someone in line or bothering some sap who's just trying to enjoy their burger without some dork standing there going "Hey, maybe my order will come up next...what'dya think?"
It took about 15-20 minutes to get my sack full of burgs and by that time the line to order at the register was out the door. The 11 am, early lunch crowd was beginning to pack it, so I grabbed my goodies and mushed my way through the horde and ran to the car.
But when I got to the car I was blocked in by the teeming mass of drive thru patrons. Again, not the best in design. Luckily a good soul saw my predicament, backed up as much as he could, curbing out a bit onto Speedway, which allowed me to wiggle the rig just enough to make it safely to the street.
Thank you kind person. You know who you are.
|Metal Mark in Lotaburger judge mode|
My first stop was to drop one off to my lady, She-Ra, to snack on while she was at work.
"You didn't get fries?", she asked.
"No," I replied. "I just wanted to get out of there."
She would later reply via text: 'Well that was a spicy pile of garbage'
|Let's play a game: Try to find the green chile topping|
Next was to visit our good friend Chili, who co-owns our favorite bar Danny's Baboquivari. You might know Chili from our strip club excursion where we got free burgers and got the go-ahead to take photos of said free burgers in an environment that isn't so spiffy on things like that. Chili is always up for a Homeskillet food challenge and this one was a breeze compared to others we have endured in the past.
We both took a seat on the outside patio, unwrapped the provisions and assessed the damage.
"Good meat to bun ratio," quipped Chili. "But pretty skimpy on the green chiles."
The burgers looked like...burgers. Nothing amazing, nothing groundbreaking. Burgers. Amidst the usual lettuce, pickle, onion fare, the meat was topped with a scant amount of roasted green chile plop. Now, we had heard that Lotaburger was famous for their green chiles and you'd think that they would embellish the Tucson eaters with just a bit more sweet heat than what we were witnessing here.
Whatever. It was time to eat.
|Chili is a man of action|
Was this burger worth the 20 minute wait? Not really. Does it live up to the hype? I don't think so. Is it the best green chile burger in the world? Umm...not in Tucson, no.
The burger was...fine. It's at that grade of an In-N-Out but not on that level if you know what I mean. Maybe some chains in New Mexico hook it up like no other but for this burger enthusiast, it tasted like a slightly higher class of fast food burger.
Half way through our burgers though, we began to realize why they use so little green chile: The heat and spice is a slow yet palpable burn. If they had slathered more of the green mush relish on the meat we would have been in some trouble. Not crazy napalm scorch but it did have a bite.
And believe me, we can take the heat.
"You know what," Chili said (by the way, yes, we found it funny that our good friend Chili was sampling green chile burgers...we got it, thank you) as he finished his burger and wiped his mouth, "I ate it but I don't think I need to again. Maybe in a year or so when the crowds die down...maybe. But for now, all I can say is: I just ate a burger with some green chiles on it. And, I can move on with my life."
No truer words were said on that fine sunny Wednesday afternoon.
|Some folks have waited for up to an hour for this thing...really?|
To be fair we did not try the breakfast burritos, we did not sample the fries and we only ate their basic burger with green chiles, so there really wasn't a well rounded account for all that Lotaburger can offer up. But if a place is boasting the "best green chile burger in the world", you better believe I am eating that burger. It's sort of like how I judge diners: if they screw up a simple club sandwich I wont go back. Or if a Japanese restaurant has crappy chicken teriyaki. If you can't get the basics down how is the rest of the menu going to fare?
Listen, there are so many burger options in this town and Lotaburger just seems like the new kid at school that at first appears all fun and shiny but then when you get to the heart of things they are proud of their Nickleback ticket collection and thought that the last Fantastic Four movie was "Oh my god, so good!"
Only to repeat myself: It was a burger. It had green chiles on it. We ate it. And then we moved on.
So to sum up our Lotaburger experience, just let this photo of me tell you what we all thought:
Camera, Typing and Eating
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
First Wednesday in April, 2016