Back when Route 66 wound its way down 4th avenue in ‘Burque’s Barelas neighborhood, the Red Ball Cafe was opened in 1922. (It got the name ‘Red Ball Cafe’ in the early 30s)
“Losing your spouse is hard. Running a business is hard. Leticia knew this wouldn’t stop her. More determined than ever, Leticia has been moving forward with grit, a love for her city and her neighborhood.“
Around that time, the cartoon Popeye was a popular cartoon, and one of the characters in the show was J. Wellington Wimpy, who only ate hamburgers. Nester and Aurora Padilla saw an opportunity and started making Wimpy Burgers with Red Chili Sauce (‘burgers with a bite’) for people hungry on the historic Mother Road.
As time went on, locals as well as travelers loved the Wimpy Burgers, and a local legend was born.
“The railyards ran 24 hours a day back in those days,” said Leticia Gutierrez, the current owner who bought the business in 2018. There were bars nearby, and there were always hungry people going and coming from work,” she said with a smile.
The original owner, Nester, passed away in 1962. His wife Aurora, and her sister, Avelina Chavez, kept running Red Ball until finally closing their doors in 1979. The cafe sat empty until 1997, when it was bought by James and Theresa Chavez, and then it closed its doors again in 2014.
Leticia Gutierrez had been a cook at Red Ball for the Chavezes, and in 2018 she made the leap, bought the business and decided to bring the Red Ball Cafe back to life.
Tragedy, Pandemic, Hope
Red Ball was featured on the cover of Route 66 Magazine, and just when everything seemed to be going her way, Leticia’s husband passed away.
Losing your spouse is tragic. Running a business is hard. Running a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic? Even harder. Leticia knew this wouldn’t stop her. More determined than ever, Leticia has been moving forward with grit, love for her city, and love for her neighborhood. “This place has been here over eighty years, and we’re proud to be in the Barelas neighborhood,” she said. “Right now, (she nodded her head to the kitchen) we do carry-out, and we’re happy to deliver. People can sit outside and eat”
As I asked about the Pandemic, she nodded and admitted it was not ideal, but that she couldn’t wait to get going again. “We have been very safe all along the way,” she said, “and we are planning to fully open in August. Safely.”
While I sampled the burgers (awesome!), a small puppy made his way over to me. Leticia smiled. “My son found him all alone in a box on the side of the road. Someone had written “Husky puppies” on the side, and so we brought him home. He was so small, I had to bottle feed him at first. Now, he’s our mascot, ‘Havoc’”.
Red Ball Cafe is staying true to its roots. “People still really enjoy the Wimpy burgers,” said Leticia. “I am thinking about buying an old shake machine to put in like they had back in the middle of the century. We can do some really great things in here.”
I started off with some chips and salsa- the salsa is made in house. It had just enough heat, and I loved it. Leticia laughed when I asked what made it taste so good. “Hatch chilis, of course!”
I had my doubts, and then I tried the burger. New Mexico, I don’t know what kind of magic is in Red and Green Chili, but oh man, these red chili Wimpy burgers hit the spot. I ate two; I felt like I could eat 30….they were so good. I followed it with ribbon fries drenched in mac and cheese and more chili sauce, all over ribbon fries.
As you can see in the video, it was a lot of food, and I devoured it all.
With our time coming to an end, I thanked Leticia for the burgers and conversation, and we shared hopes that Albuquerque comes out of the pandemic stronger than ever.
We both took a long look down the empty street, and then back at each other. “Barelas is the heart of Albuquerque. We’re all going to make it,” she said with a smile.
Red Ball Cafe is at 1303 4th Street SW, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87102