The Bobcat Bite doesn’t serve breakfast. But customers began waiting outside the door at 9:25 a.m. Saturday, the second to last day the current proprietors served food in the quaint Old Las Vegas Highway burger joint that has become a legend.
When the doors opened at 11 a.m. every one of the the eatery’s 29 seats were filled. Those who came in the next wave were told to expect a wait of an hour or more. By noon, the parking lot was overflowing with cars, and burger lovers loitered outside waiting patiently — one even brought a book — for one last chance to eat one of The Bobcat Bite’s famous green-chile-cheeseburgers at that location.
The Bobcat Bite was founded in 1953 by Mitzi Panzer. Several others have run it since, most recently John and Bonnie Eckre, who took it over 12 years ago.
Over the years the tiny building known for turning out big juicy burgers has gained a cult status among local and national foodies.
“There is even a burger place in New York that has a Bobcat Burger,” said Travis Waddington one of the customers waiting Saturday morning. “Of course, it’s served with canned green chiles and it doesn’t even come close.”
But a recent dispute between the Panzer family and the Eckres — about which neither side has been eager to provide details — resulted in the Eckres recent announcement that they would be leaving the iconic Old Las Vegas spot to open a restaurant in Garrett’s Desert Inn in downtown Santa Fe. The Panzer family declined to comment for this story on the future of the building.
The Panzer’s own the name Bobcat Bite. So the new place will be called simply “The Bite,” not as — one customer jokingly suggested Saturday — “The Bobcat Bite Me.”
In the weeks since the Eckre’s announced their imminent departure, the Bobcat Bite has been packed, serving as many as 400 customers per day, about twice as many as usual, some who have come from as far away as Texas.
The atmosphere Saturday was festive but nostalgia-tinged, like the last day of school before summer break. Customers snapped pics of the cafe’s framed photographs of bobcats and bobcat tchotchkies and rifled through the dwindling supply of Bobcat Bite T-shirts while they waited for their food. Many stood to embrace Bonnie Eckre as she took their orders. She also received a phone call from Italy — Opera people who come to Santa Fe every summer she said — calling to wishing her well.
Tom VanValkenburgh, the first person to arrive outside the Bobcat Bite to wait for lunch Saturday morning, said he’s been eating there since the 1970s.
DeboraVarela of Bernalillo said she had eaten at the burger joint only a few times in her life, though she passed it on the road almost daily while growing up in Pecos. Saturday she brought her mother, Marie Varela of Albuquerque, and friend Ruth Gonzales of Santa Fe to enjoy it again for the first time in years.
“It’s part of New Mexico,” she said.
The Eckre’s say all but one of their employees (about 4 people besides themselves and their son) will come with them to the new restaurant. The only one who won’t — their long-time friend Gail Lampert who came in to fill a shift 12 years ago and never left — is retiring.
The original grill that was installed by the Panzer’s will stay in the building. But a second grill built by John Eckre in 2001 will be moved to the new location which the Eckre’s say they hope to have opened by mid-to-late July.
The couple hope to obtain a beer and wine license in their new location. “Because some people like to have a beer with their burger,” John Eckre said.
Today is the last day to get a burger or a plate of chops lovingly served up by the Eckres in the original building on the side of the road outside the city. The Bobcat Bite is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and all proceeds from today’s sales will be donated to Kitchen Angels, a nonprofit that serves meals to the home-bound.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.