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New Mexico’s other Ground Zero


Most New Mexicans know Trinity Site, in the northern, Stallion Gate area of White Sands Missile Range, is Ground Zero for the first atomic bomb detonation in July 1945.

With the release of the new movie “Oppenheimer,” many more people in the world will know about Trinity Site.

Another thing most New Mexicans know, but most of the rest of the world still does not: Trinity Site lies about an hour’s drive from another Ground Zero: the birthplace of the green chile cheeseburger.

Tiny San Antonio, New Mexico, is situated on U.S. Hwy. 380, a mile or so east of Interstate 25, about nine miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. In any other universe, the village would be most famous for being the birthplace and hometown of Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels.

Another thing most New Mexicans know, though, is the Land of Enchantment is a universe unto itself. And tiny San Antonio is most famous for having not one, but TWO of the most famous and delicious green chile cheeseburger restaurants in New Mexico which, by definition, makes them two of the most famous and delicious green chile restaurants in the world.

The Owl Bar & Café and the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio both began in the 1940s.

The Buckhorn is owned by former Las Crucens Ernie and Stephanie Sichler, both alumni of New Mexico State University. In 2019, they purchased it from Bobby Holguin, whose father and grandfather had owned it before him. Ernie is a native of Socorro County, so it was a bit of a homecoming for him.

I talked with Ernie the other day, to see if Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists might have visited the Buckhorn during the days leading up to the Trinity Test.

“I don’t know officially if that’s true,” Sichler said. While there are several records and lore that point to the Buckhorn moving to its current location in 1943, there are just as many questions, and very few solid records. So, wisely, Ernie did not attach any definitive claims.

However, just down the street from the Buckhorn, at the Owl Bar & Café, fourth-generation owner Janice Argabright has more distinct stories about the bomb and its creators.

“My great-grandfather, J.E. Meira, had a little mercantile store and some cabins he rented out and these guys rented the cabins and hung out,” Argabright said. “They were the scientists, but they called themselves ‘prospectors’ because of the secrecy. They wanted some beer and whiskey and food and stuff.

“Around that time, my grandfather, Frank Chavez, came back home from being enlisted, in the Navy, and he decided to help out,” Argabright said. “So, he started a bar for them, and he cooked, and they drank.”

This was 1945, and that’s how the Owl Bar began. And, as still happens today if you find yourself at the Owl, the people in the bar had a tendency to make friends.

In those early days of the Owl, when they were just getting started cooking meals, it was the dishwasher’s job to set out an area with the fixings for the cheeseburgers. There were plates and bowls with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and, if anybody wanted some, New Mexico green chile.

One day, the dishwasher didn’t show up.

So rather than set out the condiments, Frank Chavez, in order to save time, just threw all of that stuff right on the burgers. According to Argabright, everybody loved it. And, if Chavez could deliver something world-shaking to those scientists, those scientists, apparently, decided to give Chavez some world-shaking information, too.

“The night before they detonated the atomic bomb, they told my grandfather to get up early and look out to the east, and he would see something he’d never seen before and would never see again,” Argabright said. “And, sure enough, he did, and he looked out and saw the mushroom cloud. My mom (Rowena Baca, who would become the Owl’s third-generation owner) was just a little girl. Everyone thought it was the end of the world. Everything shook, glass broke, and my great-grandma Meira put all the kids under the beds.

“We have a lot of articles and historical things around the restaurant from all through the years,” said Argabright, who took over the restaurant from her mother, who retired in 2018. “And now, with the movie, everybody’s been looking at the articles and talking about Oppenheimer.”

Everyone, of course, knows the name Oppenheimer, the man behind the atom bomb.

Sadly, however, no one knows that name of that dishwasher who didn’t show up for work. That man who, inadvertently, was the man behind the glory that is the green chile cheesebur