Resting in the heart of Barelas is one of its neighborhood’s oldest eateries, an establishment that has seen the community change over the years and has also succumbed to closing and reopening a number of times. In its third go-around, reopening approximately five years ago, new owner Leticia Gallegos is making sure the iconic Red Ball Cafe is maintaining its vintage aesthetic.
Before Gallegos came around, the building containing Red Ball was in shambles. Condemned and filled with squatters, the building was close to being demolished. Luckily, a Barelas couple, James and Teresa Chavez, purchased the building in the late ’90s hoping to salvage what was left of the old building.
“Before the city was going to level the building, they decided to put it up for auction to see if anyone from the community wanted to purchase the place. That’s when James and Teresa stepped in,” Gallegos explains. “The city and the Barelas community really didn’t want to demolish Red Ball, because everyone knew how much history this place had. After the Chavez family remodeled it and reopened it in 1998, I actually came and worked here for three years as a cook.”
But the story of Red Ball starts way before the Chavez-Gallegos era. The year 1922 marked the first year of its existence, first run and operated by Nestor Padilla. It started as a burger shack, incorporating its main item, the “Wimpy Burger,” an item Red Ball still features today. At first it sounds like just an ordinary hamburger, but Padilla came up with a brilliant idea—throwing red chile on top. Apparently, this product was a hit. And not only in Barelas. Word got around town.
Red Ball maintained a prominent presence for years. Then, at 65 years old, Padilla suffered a heart attack. The Padilla family continued to run Red Ball and kept it going on a 24-hour schedule. The women would work the morning shifts with the men following after for the evening shift. With an impeccable rotation of labor, one element helped the eatery thrive—the bar across the street. The bar and Route 66 still running through the neighborhood carried the burger shack through the Great Depression.
“Of course Red Ball had other things on the menu, but people all around came for this burger. It was in high demand. From the traffic of Route 66 to the bar patrons, it managed its popularity,” Gallegos laughs. “It’s no wonder they survived the Depression. But as the men and women got older, they still continued to keep this place open. I mean some of these women were working with canes and walkers! Eventually one of the owners passed, and she handed it to her sister. But as time went on, it ended up closing down.”
After Red Ball closed, the place fell into disarray. Then came the purchase from the Chavez family, who paid only $10,000—which today would be $16,515.03. Still quite the bargain. But more importantly it kept the historic building a part of the Barelas community.
“This neighborhood is very important to me. I grew up here. My parents had a house on 10th St., and everything was here. I’ve always been around here, and the people here are different,” Gallegos says. “People sometimes are afraid to venture into this neighborhood because of our past. But the community came together, stuck their heels in and tried their hardest to keep it going. It means a lot to me, because I know everybody in the neighborhood. It’s home. It’s come a long way, but it still needs a lot of love.”
Barelas is filled with rich New Mexican culture. With its long history of being one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, the area has seen its up and downs. Yet the area is charming and welcoming to all newcomers, especially when looking for a place to eat—which, of course, begins with Red Ball’s famous Wimpy Burger.
Once my visit with Gallegos ended, I decided to roll back the next day to try out this historic item. A burger smothered in red chile? Why wouldn’t I? Of course, being a native New Mexican, I’ve had my fair share of chile-smothered foods, but I wouldn’t be much of a food writer if I didn’t compare and contrast. After I took the first bite, I fully understood why Red Ball contained its reputation.
It had the taste of good ole-fashioned New Mexican comfort food. Red Ball’s burger had the “back to basics” approach. Red Ball didn’t over-complicate what it already knew. Instead of heavy garnish and fancy plates, Red Ball delivers the food in a basic red basket, with the red chile-covered patty lying between two buns—simple, yet satisfying. I even checked out their red chile-covered hot dogs. Not too shabby, to say the least. Luckily, I was there on the right day for a special item—Ribbon fries cover in red chile and mac and cheese. A heavy item packing a punch of flavors. All of it, comfort food at its best.
Red Ball Cafe
1303 Fourth St. SW
Category: American/New Mexican
Phone: (505) 508-1363