Five Star Burgers and I go way back.
OK, maybe not wayyy back—but far enough back to the days when I called teaching kids to ski and guiding a raft down the Rio Grande my "job." (Waitressing at a pizza joint nestled among snowdrifts in Taos Ski Valley was my "other job.")
Five Star Burgers first opened five years ago in Taos, a town possibly even more notorious than Santa Fe for chewing new restaurants up and spitting them out in two years or less. The upshot is that locals—especially the perpetually hungry ones who exercise all day and make next to nothing—are early adopters; they know things won't last, so they enjoy them while they can.
So it was with Five Star Burgers. In a town totally devoid of a real burger joint, Five Star (604 N. Guadalupe St. Ste A) was a godsend. I could afford it—burgers range from $7.95-$11, are thick and juicy, and use hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef. (The sweet potato fries, served with green chile mayo, are also pretty delicious.) The man-friend and I ate there almost every chance we got; we were certain that after the two-year litmus test, it would fail, just as a long line of restaurants had before it.
Owner Bob Gontram confirms that even though Taos utterly lacked a good burger joint, starting Five Star wasn't easy. (Full disclosure: Being as Taos is a small town, I once rafted the Zambeze River with Gontram's son, Matt.)
"It's a new concept in the entire market," Gontram says. "This high-end, no-hormone, no-antibiotic beef, cooked to order—not too many people do this, so it just took time for people to find out about it."
But Gontram's is the rare, recession-era success story: Since losing money in its first year, Five Star has been growing (and profiting) prodigiously. After expanding to Albuquerque in 2010, Gontram plans to open a second location there this year, as well as one in his hometown of St. Louis, Mo.—and, of course, in Santa Fe.
At first, the man-friend and I were wary. Since Five Star morphed from a beloved, small-town burger joint into a bona fide regional chain, we reasoned, the quality could only have declined.
But after a round of fried pickles and the same delicious sweet potato fries, we were more hopeful. Then the man-friend's favorite menu item, the signature Five Star Burger ($8.95, served with bacon and gorgonzola), arrived.
"You know this is good because, the first few bites I took, juice squirted out of it," he said, grinning. "You can quote me on that."
In short, even though the menu has expanded significantly (to include, among other things, $1 mini ice cream cones!), Five Star is still a no-frills place with plain old good food. And despite the competitiveness of Santa Fe's restaurant scene, Gontram is optimistic about his ability to appeal to locals.
"Our price point is above the very low end, but way below most of the tourist-type restaurants," he explains, "so I think we will establish a really strong local business, and the tourists will just drop in."
So, here's the deal: Five Star is more than just a regular burger joint, but only just barely. The prices are on par with most sit-down burger places in town, unless you go all crazy and order things like the crab burger (still only $11). Local beers are available on tap, and the service is friendly and down-to-earth. In sum, you don't go here for an ethereal culinary experience; you go here to be a real person and enjoy some real food.
Oh, and eat mini ice cream cones like a little kid.