SAN ANTONIO, N.M. — One thought ran through Jessica Frastaci’s mind as she eyed the green chile cheeseburger — sans a bun — on a plate at the Buckhorn Tavern.
“I hope it tastes as good as it looks,” she said before enjoying lunch with her friend Glenda Perry at the newly reopened eatery in the small town south of Socorro.
“These are the types of places where I like to eat — mom-and-pop owned,” Frastaci said.
Perry agreed. “It’s one of New Mexico’s little gems,” she said.
The little gem, open for a century before former owner Bobby Olguin closed it late last year to deal with health issues, is back in business. Ernie and Stephanie Sichler of Las Cruces bought the restaurant in April and reopened it in late August.
A month later, “We’ve been slammed,” Ernie said last week.
The tavern has been in its current location since 1943, always in the hands of the Olguin family until the Sichlers bought it. The Buckhorn actually opened somewhere in that area in 1918, but Ernie said no one knows exactly where.
The Buckhorn for years had a foodie rivalry with the burger-and-beer joint down the street, The Owl Bar and Cafe. Also nationally recognized for its green chile cheeseburgers, The Owl remains in San Antonio, but also expanded to Albuquerque many years ago. The Owl-Buckhorn combination made the otherwise lonely stretch of U.S. 380 a foodie destination.
The new Buckhorn remains a walk-in place where it’s perfectly OK to eat lunch around 3 p.m. Patches from local, regional and state law enforcement agencies dot some of the wooden posts and beams in the restaurant. The old counter-bar has been replaced by a new one made of concrete.
The Sichlers had the place cleaned, painted and “patched up,” he said, and installed new kitchen appliances. The small performance stage in the back of the tavern is still there, and Ernie said he hopes to start offering music at least once a week, probably on a weeknight, before year’s end.
The Buckhorn just got a beer license and began serving bottled beer last week, and the Sichlers are working on getting a distributor to deliver wine soon. They have 10 employees, including two cooks who worked for Olguin.
At least 75 percent of the menu is full of oldies-but-goodies fare, including the famous Buckhorn Burger — which some 15 years ago ranked as the No. 7 burger to order in America by Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine — but the Sichlers have added some new dishes, such as Fred’s Special Burger.
This family favorite, which Ernie’s dad, Fred, made for years with canned ingredients, is a ground beef patty topped by hand-cut fries smothered in a cream-based mushroom sauce and green chile cheddar cheese.
“I spent the last eight years of my life trying to get the can out of it,” Ernie said of the dish.
Ernie grew up in the San Antonio area, where his family has long been involved in farming. He had been working for a financial planning company in Las Cruces — where his wife still works for New Mexico State University — until earlier this year, when he took over the Buckhorn.
Part of the reason he and his wife bought the place, he said, is because it saddens him to “drive through some of these small New Mexico towns and see everything closed down. Everybody loves this place.”
Melissa Mackechnie of Tularosa is one of those in love with the old-style tavern. She said she has been coming “for as long as I can remember.”
She was disappointed when the place closed in December and kept track of the restaurant’s Facebook page to see if there would be any movement to reopen it. She’s been there five times in the past four weeks, she said. For years, she ordered the green chile cheeseburger. Last week, she tired something different — the Rio Grande Special, which is a plate of hand-cut fries covered with ground beef, cheese, green chile, lettuce and tomato.
She pronounced it excellent.
“This place is history,” she said. “This place has been here forever, or close to forever. It’s the perfect place to stop because it’s right in the middle of any long-distance traveling you might do in New Mexico. You open the door, you walk in, and you feel like you’re home.”
Darryn Jackson, who lives in Socorro and works as a server at the Buckhorn, echoed that thought.
“Everything here is home-cooked,” she said. “So it is like your home. If you don’t want to cook at home, you can come to the Buckhorn — and it will still be home.”