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July 2024

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Photos by Edward Camp: New owner Miguel Rael serving up the goods while showing his Wildcat pride.

The Cat Came Back: Wildcat’s Den Re-Opens

Courtesy Photo

Sometimes, a restaurant is more than just a restaurant. Sometimes a restaurant can transcend the boundaries of mere eatery and become that most hallowed of institutions, a hangout. Not just a place to refill a growling belly but a place to refill the soul, a place to see friends and catch up with neighbors and a place with warm comfort on even a tough day.

The Wildcat’s Den in Questa was one of those hallowed hangouts. Of course, in 1980 when Robert LaFore opened the Den, as it’s affectionately called by locals, he probably had little idea what his burger and shake shop would come to mean to the community. But over the decades, the Den became a hub for the people of northern Taos County, as generations grew up on their handmade goodness. So it was with heavy hearts that Robert’s children, Phil, Dynell, Debbie, Jake and his partner Jolton, made the difficult decision to shutter the Den in September 2021. It’s been a long winter for local burger lovers. (See our story on the Wildcat’s Den closing in the December 2021 issue of Questa Del Rio News)

“Since the very first time they opened, I’ve been a customer here many years,” said local Vangie Leyba, of the beloved burger joint. “I work for the PMS Health Center and when the Den shut down it was something sad for all us employees.””

But now, like a phoenix with green chiles and cheese rising from the deep fryer, the Den is back. And just like before, The Wildcat’s Den remains a family affair; 23-year-old Miguel Rael is taking the lead on day-to-day operations while his parents, Malaquias “J.R.” and Danette Rael, and Miguel’s sister, Danielle Lovato with her husband Jose, also own shares in the business. J.R. manages one of his family’s businesses, Northstar Automotive, the tire shop just across the street from the Den. J.R. and his brothers and sister also own Questa Lumber & Hardware, and CarQuesta.

When the Den shut down “…we kind of started talking as a family,” says Miguel. “You know, the Wildcat’s Den meant so much to so many people in the area, it was hard to see it go. It was the longest serving restaurant in Questa. It was the place to come when we were in high school. It was somewhere you could come and always have good, consistent food. So, we said ‘let’s look into it and look into getting it open; give it back to the community. ”

It started giving back on June 7 with a soft reopening. The only announcement was the sign out front, which changed from “Closed” to a short message: “Opening June 7, We’re Back! Mon 2 Sat 11-7.” Jake LaFore and Jolton were there to help ease Miguel’s new employees into the job. It was a little while before the first customer came along, a man named Matt. “Been waitin’ for this Frito Pie for a long time!” he said.
A week later, the scene was much different. Word spread quickly and the place was popping with customers by 11:30 am and was still busy two hours later. Miguel said “I have people coming from south of Taos and down from Colorado. Business is good!”

Miguel, a college graduate with a bachelor’s in business, cut his teeth in restaurants when he started working at the Red River Brewing Company when it first opened. Now he has big plans for taking that community connection to “the next level,” saying he wants the restaurant to “be kind of like the ambassador for the schools, because the Questa schools are the Questa Wildcats. We want to make sure we promote the schools as much as we can.”

In addition to expanded regular hours, Miguel has plans to keep the Den open late after school events. “Sometimes, games will end at 9 o’clock. There’s like a basketball game and there’s nothing open in the area. Certain days like that, we’ll stay open for the students and parents.”

He also sees the business making some modest expansions over the next few years. “After we get our rhythm going… eventually, we’d like to do an outdoor patio, like a beer garden. Very simple, just a few beers on tap. People can come up and order a burger or a meal and, especially this time of year, just go outside and enjoy a beer while you eat your burger,” Miguel says. He sees this patio with stunning views of Flag Mountain and the Sangre de Cristos, as another way to strengthen the Den’s bond with the community.

Used with permission from the Enchanted Circle News