The American West has long been known for its wide open spaces, incredible natural scenery, and the once-ubiquitous roadside attractions that sprang up along its highways. From the 1950s on, businesses employed ever more eye-catching displays in order to attract a traveler’s attention. Campgrounds featuring plaster dinosaurs, cafés with life-size blue whales rising out of nearby ponds, hotels shaped like tepees, and so very many more oddities and attractions were employed to convince drivers that this was a stop worth making.
New Mexico was no exception to this tradition.
Old photos show that our highways were once populated with these campy-cool attractions, from concrete covered wagons and cafés built to mimic Arctic icebergs (complete with a polar bear!) to Mexican restaurants disguised as—what else?—a sombrero. Many of those are long gone, victims of the interstate system that prioritized fast travel over local economies, but even today a few survive, and some new ones have risen up to join them.
With the weather finally cooling off and chile roasting underway, it’s the perfect time for New Mexicans to embark on road trips in the southern portion of the state, whether Hatch, Carlsbad, or White Sands National Park. And if you’re willing to avoid the interstate, you’ll have a chance to see some of the state’s finest examples of roadside architecture and, even better, taste the food they are so often advertising. If you’re ambitious and don’t mind taking some time on your travels, you could even hit all of these sites on a single trip and eat your way through kitsch all the way down to Hatch (or up to Albuquerque).
Giant Stucco Owl: Owl Cafe
Ever since the Owl Cafe in Albuquerque opened in 1987, the ten-by-ten-foot owl’s head, complete with neon eyes, has drawn locals and tourists alike. Inside, the café evokes a classic 1950s sensibility, right down to the miniature jukeboxes on many of the tables. And the hamburgers are top notch—they’re based on the recipes from the café’s sister eatery, the world-famous Owl Bar and Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico. Come during one of the many classic car meetups that take place in the parking lot and you can just about convince yourself that the golden age of tourist motoring never came to an end.
Recommended: Ranch Burger and Chocolate Malt
World’s Largest Pistachio: PistachioLand
Alamogordo has long been New Mexico’s pistachio capital thanks to the unique climate of the Tularosa Basin, which turns this patch of desert into a near match for the Middle Eastern regions where pistachios originated. PistachioLand has been at the forefront of the industry since its founding in 1980. Today it boasts over ninety-five acres and twelve thousand pistachio trees, not to mention a vineyard and attached winery. But when founder Tom McGinn passed away in 2007, his son Tim decided that there was really only one way to memorialize his dad: a thirty-foot pistachio, billed as the “world’s largest.” The huge nut has attracted the likes of Norman Reedus and Larry the Cable Guy in addition to untold numbers of curious and hungry travelers. Behind the nut is the huge McGinn’s Country Store, featuring the requisite T-shirts and postcards but also a wide variety of bulk in-shell pistachio flavors, from plain salted to red chile to lemon lime.
Recommended: Lemon Lime Pistachios
Apple Boy: Old Apple Barn
On the mountainous road to Cloudcroft, your attention will be captured by a twelve-foot-tall . . . uh . . . child with an apple for a head. Don’t be scared! He’s the Apple Boy and he’s welcoming you to the Old Apple Barn of High Rolls, a one-time railroad town that supplied central New Mexico with, you guessed it, apples. Those days are long gone, but Apple Boy, though he was only built in 2010, evokes those glory days. In the eponymous Apple Barn (built in 1941) you’ll find an emporium stocked with Apple Boy T-shirts, old-timey toys and 1,001 other such necessaries. But the main attraction is the bakery counter, where some truly fiiiiiiine apple and pecan pies can be had by the slice (or whole if you’re bringing some home for the family), with or without vanilla ice cream. There’s also fudge, cherry and apple ciders, and homemade root beer.
Recommended: Apple Crumble Pie
Too Many Attractions to Name: Sparky’s Burgers, Barbecue, and Espresso
Most roadside architecture is content to feature a single oversize object: owl, pistachio, Apple Boy, or whatever. In the late aughts, Sparky’s in Hatch said “Why choose?” and began piling. The result is an eclectic collision of roadside kitsch: a Roswell alien stands vigil beside an oversize bucket of KFC while Yogi Bear hoists a hamburger aloft and a host of Big Boys dances on the roof—and that’s just to name a few. Inside, the visual cacophony does not stop. Customers dine in the glow of dozens of neon signs, salvaged from eateries across the country. And what are they dining on? The hottest, smokiest green chile burger you’re likely to find. Or, if burgers aren’t their thing, there’s the barbecue, which the Food Network recently touted as the best in New Mexico. And of course it comes with green chile too. If, somehow, you haven’t had your chile fix after dinner, then why not try a chocolate-and-green-chile milkshake (a.k.a. The Ozzy) for dessert? You’re a New Mexican in Hatch! Put green chile in and on everything! It’s practically your duty.
Recommended: Hatch Green Chile Cheeseburger and The Ozzy
Ty Bannerman has been writing about New Mexico for over a decade. He is the author of the history book Forgotten Albuquerque and his work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Eater, and the American Literary Review. He co-hosts the podcast City on the Edge, which tells stories from New Mexico’s past.