The Frontier is one of the only places in Albuquerque where you can go with your friends at midnight Saturday and again with your family at 8 Sunday morning. It’s the place to meet up before the big football game or to go with a study group before your algebra final. It’s where to plan a Friday night that’s barely gotten started and to go when the night’s over but it’s too early to go home.
The Frontier is always open, and the food is relatively cheap. The Denny’s right down the street is open 24 hours and you can get a cheaper burger at Rex’s on Harvard. But no matter what time of the day or night you go to the Frontier, you’re likely to meet someone there who you know. So is it the food, the location, the atmosphere? What makes the Frontier such a popular hangout? I went 10 times in three weeks to find out.
The Frontier, directly across from the University of New Mexico, was originally designed to cater to university students. College kids tend to have thin wallets and busy schedules, and the restaurant is a better place to study than a dorm room. But when I visited, I almost always found as many high schoolers as college students waiting in line. They were the ones I talked to, trying to find out what it is about the place that makes them go there week after week.
Some credited the food. It is hard to resist a breakfast burrito, a sweet roll and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Others credited the location: They were close, they were hungry.
But as I sat at a table with my blank notebook, eating western-style hashbrowns and watching all manner of people file in and out of the big front doors, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it isn’t just the green chile stew and the pictures of John Wayne drawing people to the Frontier every weekend. There’s something about the place that I just couldn’t pinpoint. After my fourth or fifth visit, still unable to figure it out, I had all but decided to scrap the article all together.
And then, a miracle happened. Well, actually, I wouldn’t quite call it a miracle. In fact, it really wasn’t even a good experience.
I was sitting in the back room, quietly laboring over this story, when a guy I’ve never seen walks through the door. He looked about my age, tall, with dark hair and a tattoo on his head. He scanned the room and walked up to my table. Then, he tried to kiss me. I pushed him away and stood up, too shocked to say anything. He ran out, pretending to cry. Everyone sitting around me laughed. After I stopped being angry and my disbelief turned into mild confusion, I began to laugh with them.
After more than 30 years as a youth hot spot, the Frontier has some stories to tell. I realized that most of the kids I talked to have had a few similar experiences that, well, just wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Instead of asking them what they’re doing there, I needed to be asking them what they’ve done.
Most people had stories to tell, and most people didn’t want their names attached. Which begs the question, how much is fact and how much is exaggeration. Those who didn’t have stories had still heard some good ones. They all add up to the legend of the Frontier. One Highland senior tells about how he got hit by a car and broke his arm outside. His friends finish the story with details about their trip to the emergency room.
An Albuquerque High thespian tells how he was saved by a manager and a security guard after he was approached by a threatening vagrant and asked for spare change.
Two blond girls from Cibola tell how they saw a man run naked through the parking lot.
A Highland soccer player tells how she tripped while running up to the counter. While falling, she grabbed onto the legs of a man standing nearby and, as she went down, so did his pants.
Lisa from Valley tells how she was approached by a bare-chested man. “Hey, I’ve lost my shirt. Can I have your number?”
And yet, the Frontier does not strike anyone as a dangerous place. Maybe it’s the pictures of John Wayne, or maybe it’s the fact that the security guards often seem to outnumber the customers, but the restaurant feels very safe.
There aren’t many places that offer both the feeling of security and the promise that something entertaining might very well happen.
It isn’t the quality of the green chile stew or the freshness of the tortillas. It isn’t the affordability of the food, or the hours, or the location. It’s the history. It’s the potential. You can eat someplace else, but you probably won’t see anything worth the gas money. You can plan your night out someplace else, but chances are the place you go isn’t going to give you any ideas. It isn’t that anyone wants to be surprise kissed, or go to the hospital, or that the Highland soccer player wants to break any indecent exposure laws. It’s just that, well, anything can happen at the Frontier. If you’re going somewhere anyway, why not take a front row seat with your grilled cheese?