“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…”
The haunting lyrics from the brilliant Johnny Cash cover of “Hurt,” an old Nine Inch Nails’ song, bellow out over the restaurant speakers as we make our way to the counter at Beer Belly’s Burgers & BBQ, a little dive right in the heart of Aztec, New Mexico.
We’re in this small New Mexico border town for a different story, and have been looking for an obscure spot marked on a paper map for several hours now. We’re famished, somewhat lost, and we’ve stumbled upon this place with the help of a handful of Internet reviews, which we were lucky to come across with only one bar on our phone.
As we look over the short but well-curated menu on the counter, we notice the cook, who doubles as counter service at this spot, is singing along with Cash to every word. In this moment, we’re sold on Beer Belly’s, no bite of food necessary.
“Hey guys! Give me just a second,” he calls from the kitchen with a huge smile. “I’m slammed.”
And slammed he is, even at 3 p.m. on this Friday afternoon, hardly the high time for lunch visitors. There are people in the small dining room who need more drinks, we’re waiting to order, and there’s a customer waiting at the drive-up window, too.
We’re happy to oblige the wait, though, especially as another Cash song, “You Are My Sunshine,” comes on to entertain us. We could sit in this place for hours with only the soundtrack as entertainment.
Luckily, it isn’t long before our friendly – and rad – cashier is ready to take our order. We take advantage of the carb-loaded menu and go for an order of fried jalapeños and onion slices, and both of us opt for the nacho burger – a burger loaded with nacho cheese and fresh jalapeños – as our main dish.
We settle in a booth toward the side of the restaurant – there are only about eight tables in this joint – and wait. As we chat, we find ourselves distracted by each song that comes on, each better than the one before it.
It isn’t long before our food arrives. The onions and jalapeños are scalding, our Cash-loving friend behind the counter warns us, before asking us if we’re up for one side of ranch or two. We didn’t have any expectations for this place, or even much warning that we’d be stopping here, but it’s clear from the first bite of a jalapeño sliver that it’s not just the music in this place that’s killer. The food is also next level.
We down the entire basket of jalapeños and onions before our food makes an appearance – not because there’s a long wait, but because these onions and jalapeños are impossible to quit. The fried onions are soft and sweet, and topped with the thinnest layer of crunchy, salty batter. We can’t put them down.
We’re no longer famished when our burgers arrive, but they look so perfect – so expertly crafted – that we vow to make room anyway. It’s a smart move. These burgers taste as good as they look. The patty is the right weight, not too thick and certainly not too thin, and the nacho cheese is actually more of a Mexican queso than a sticky nacho cheese. The viscous cheese and the bright green pops of slightly spicy jalapeños are all the toppings this burger needs. Together, they are perfection.
And, the fries. Oh, the fries. A hearty pile of thick potato matchsticks sits alongside our burger, and it’s clear from the golden color and crispy texture that they’re expertly crafted. We are uncomfortably full from the burger, fried onions, and jalapeños, but we somehow find room anyway.
The risk of exploding proves a gamble worth taking. These fries are some of the best we’ve ever had, especially at a burger joint, and the fry sauce we were offered at the counter elevates them to heavenly status. We’re only able to shove a few in our mouths before throwing in the towel, but it’s not for lack of deliciousness. We’re just too full. Beer Belly’s has won.
As we roll out into the warm afternoon sunshine of Aztec, we smile. Another Cash song has come on, and our new friend at this dive has paused his bellowing long enough to call goodbye to us as we struggle with the door.
We’ve found our burger haven in this place, just a short drive from the chaos of downtown Durango. We’ll be back, Beer Belly’s, and next time, we’ll sing those old Cash lyrics right along with you. Life is too short to do anything otherwise.