Cafe 6855 – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cafe 6855 on 4th Street

The cover page of the May 20, 2013 edition of Time Magazine depicts a twenty-something woman sprawled on the floor taking a selfie. In large type above the photo is the caption “The Me Me Me Generation” subtitled with “Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.” If you believe the monolithic label “millennial” (typically assigned to a person born between 1981 and 2001) defines all young people and that popular characterizations and stereotypes about millennials are accurate, perhaps you’ll be interested in an oceanfront piece of real estate I’m selling in Arizona. If your perceptions of young people skew toward the negative, let me introduce you to Victoria and Julian Gonzales.

Victoria and Julian are among the 80-million millennials across the fruited plain. As with many millennials, they’re technologically savvy, very civic-minded and conscious of health, environmental and socioeconomic issues. They’re confident and driven. They’ve got exceptional work ethics and value social connectedness very much…and not just online Both are very outgoing and friendly. They’ve had to be. We’ve known Victoria and Julian since they tagged along with their charismatic dad Michael as he launched Café Bella, his then-fledgling coffee empire in Rio Rancho. We’ve watched them grow not only into very accomplished baristas who’ve served me hundreds of red chile mochas, but into extraordinary young adults with good heads on their shoulders. To say we’re very fond of them is an understatement.

Left: Our beautiful server and friend Victoria Gonzales and her sister…er, mom Tiffany

Until recently, Victoria, a full-time student at the University of New Mexico somehow managed to put in as many as sixty hours in her two part-time jobs (Café Bella and Joe’s Pasta House).  When she moved on to another job, we missed seeing her perpetually smiling face, always effusive greeting and nonpareil ability to prepare the perfect red chile mocha. Fortunately, her new job is as a hostess and server at Café 6855 on North 4th.  It’s not much further from Cafe Bella for us and it’s got a capacious, but intimate dog-friendly patio.  Our inaugural visit to the Cafe was a happy reunion in that we were well taken care of by Victoria and got to visit with her mom Tiffany and grandmother Mary Ann who were also visiting Cafe 6855 for the first time.  It’s easy to see where Victoria and Julian get their good looks and winning personalities (okay, Michael may have had a little to do with that as well).

Cafe 6855 is the sister restaurant to Vernon’s Speakeasy, a highly touted steak restaurant which has garnered local and national recognition as New Mexico’s most romantic restaurant.  Its name is derived from its address (6855 4th Street) where it shares space with its elder sibling.  More precisely, Cafe 6855 is located in the space which previously housed Prime and before that the Calico Cantina & Cafe.  Cafe 6855 is open daily for lunch and serves a fabulous brunch on weekends, but in the evenings and at night, the cafe space and patio become part of Vernon’s.  At the Cafe, you can even order Vernon’s steaks at lunch and brunch

Carolina Chicken Salad

Instead of a large menu, Cafe 6855 focuses on a few items and if our inaugural experience is any indication, they’re prepared extraordinarily well.  By the way, when you dine al fresco, especially with a dining companion as charming and outgoing as our debonair dachshund Dude, you get to know everyone on the patio.  There was consensus among the dozen or so people enjoying the patio as to the high level of deliciousness to which we were all treated.  Those of us who ordered the breakfast enchiladas (more on them later) were especially enthralled with our choice.  One diner even offered a thousand dollar bribe to get the recipe for the chile.  It would have been a bargain at that price.

The lunch menu (noting that all items are subject to change and availability) is segmented into four sections: Soups and Side Salads, 6855 Sandwiches, Salads and Cafe Specialties.  Then there’s the dozen item brunch menu which features items you might find at other purveyors of eye-opening brunches.  In other words, outwardly the menu has no surprises.  What is surprising, however, is just how good your meal is prepared.  Moreover, there’s enough variety to warrant frequent return visits (that is, if you can get past those breakfast enchiladas).

New York Steak with Eggs, Toast and Fruit

There are four salads on the lunch menu, each intriguing in its own way.  The most unique offering is the Carolina Chicken Salad (fried chicken, pickled okra and red onion, chopped tomato, shredded cheese, candied bacon and pecans, with romaine tossed with a spicy honey mustard vinaigrette). This is the antithesis of every boring chicken salad you’ve ever had (and I’ll bet most of them were probably constructed with cold chopped chicken).  You’ll probably want to pluck the fried chicken out of the salad and eat it on its own, but it goes very well with the other ingredients, perhaps marrying best with the candied bacon and pecans.  The spicy honey mustard vinaigrette is slathered on generously, a huge plus.

In the Land of Enchantment, two ubiquitous breakfast favorites reign supreme and have done so for a long time. New Mexico’s two most beloved—some would say beatified–breakfast items are breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros. Breakfast tacos (not talking here about the Texas-style taquitos at Whataburger) and, perhaps to a lesser extent, breakfast enchiladas have played third and fourth fiddle to their breakfast brethren. Café 6855 may just change your mind about to order for breakfast and brunch. The brunch menu offers the very best breakfast enchilada we’ve ever had, a beauteous behemoth that covers an entire plate. Picture three rolled enchiladas engorged with your choice of chicken or seasoned ground beef and cheese covered in a blanket of red or (and) green chile and two eggs prepared to your exacting specifications. Trust me, you’re going to want these enchiladas “Christmas” style. Red and green are equally terrific with a nice balance of piquancy (a little too much heat for my Kim) and flavor (sheer lick-the-plate deliciousness). These enchiladas are so good you’ll probably polish them off even though they’ll fill you up halfway through your meal. If you’re going to leave anything on the plate, it’ll probably be the pinto beans which are quite good, but the star of this dish is clearly the enchiladas. 

Breakfast Enchiladas with two eggs

My Chicago born-and-bred bride of three decades thought she might be disappointed with the brunch entrée of strip steak and eggs, figuring that a fifteen dollar steak could hardly compete with the high priced steaks she’s had at Vernon’s. Okay, so the steak wasn’t prime beef, but it was eight-ounces of well-seasoned, nicely-marbled beef as tender and delicious as we’ve had at several higher priced chop houses. Served atop the steak is an herbaceous compound butter which you can spread onto the beef. It’s a nice touch! The steak is served with two eggs your way, seasoned papas, fresh fruit and toast. The small, cubed papas are a worthy accompaniment though you’ll probably want even more than you’re served.

It goes without saying that service was flawless with Victoria taking care of our every need and brightening our day with her smiles and charm.  Seeing her was the reason we visited Cafe 6855.  Outstanding food and service are two of the many reasons we’ll return.

Cafe 6855
6855 4th Street, N.W., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 341-0831
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2017
# OF VISITS:  1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Carolina Chicken Salad, Breakfast Enchiladas with Two Eggs, New York Steak with Eggs

Cafe 6855 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Brixens – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Brixens, soon to be a downtown fixture on Central Avenue

Though he may not have received any votes in the recent Gil’s Thrilling…. poll asking “with whom you would most like to break bread or tortillas or pita or hearts from among the cast of characters with whom Gil has shared his journey of (then) 999 reviews,” my friend Bill Resnik has and will always be one of my favorite dining companions. He’s a brilliant conversationalist and one of the very funniest people you could ever hope to meet (two hours after my appendectomy he had me in more stitches than the actual surgery). When he recently invited me to lunch, he asked if I wanted to go to “the restaurant opened by the love child of Vixen and Blitzen” (two of Santa’s reindeer). It didn’t immediately dawn on me that he was talking about Brixens, the very highly touted new downtown restaurant in the heart of Central Avenue.

Brixens is not named for the love child of any of Santa’s reindeer. Nor is it named for Brixen, a town in Northern Italy. Brixens is named for the brick accents, particularly on the west wall of the venerable Yrisarri building built in 1909. Located on the southwest corner of 4th and Central, the Yrissari building has cast its shadows on both the historic original route and the rerouted path of Route 66. For three decades, the bottom floor corner of that edifice was the home of Nick’s Crossroads Cafe after which it was occupied by the short-lived Cafe Bien whose closure was swathed in infamy. Brixens is wholly unlike either of its predecessors with a vibrancy that bespeaks of modernity and energy.

Brixens’ capacious dining room

You’ll do a double-take the minute you walk in and espy 5,000 square feet of space laid out creatively. An year-long construction process was well-spent. Save for the floor-to-ceiling brick wall, nary a vestige of previous occupants remains. The cynosure of the space is a hand-crafted bar above which the name “Brixens” is prominently displayed with the “X” noticeably taller than the other letters. To the left of the bar is a vertical sign, a menu of sorts which from top to bottom reads: Smile, Eat, Laugh, Talk, Kiss, Drink, Sing. Ostensibly these are all activities in which guests can engage during their visit. During our inaugural visit, the words “Eat” and “Drink” were lit up, a reminder perhaps of what we were all there to do. Three flat screen televisions hanging over bar were tuned to a surprisingly diverse troika of programs–a perfunctory sports show, a sultry soap opera and a Christian music program. Talk about catering to all tastes.

Even the ordering process is 21st century. Instead of the conventional paper menu, you’re handed an iPad on which the menu is displayed in as clear and unpixilated a view as modern technology can make possible. Techies among us will drool almost as much about the iPad’s tap-and-drag, one- and two-finger scroll capabilities as we will about the menu. Click on any menu item and you’ll not only see a food-porn-worthy image of the item, but a mouth-watering description that includes such dietary essential information as if the item is gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan. Custom hand-built tables which feature ice coolers built into the center of every table will keep your adult beverages cold.

Chips & Dips

“Fine Fare and Luxurious Libations” are the tag line below the restaurant name on the Brixens Website which also boasts of “Drawing on flavors and inspiration from our New Mexican culture, as well as regional cuisines from across America, the Brixens’ menu spotlights dishes you know and love done with a surprising new twist that focuses on quality ingredients and thoughtfully crafted, scratch made food.” Indeed, we do know and love the dishes spotlighted on the menu, but many of those dishes can be found at other restaurants. What distinguishes those dishes at Brixens are the quality ingredients, thoughtful crafting and scratch-made preparation…just as it says in the menu. We had the pleasure of meeting executive chef Chelsea Carbin whose enthusiasm for the menu and the Brixens concept are contagious.

The menu is the antithesis of those compendium War and Peace-sized menus which list so many items none of them can possibly be good. Instead, the focus seems to be on a handful of items executed very well. The menu is arranged into four categories: Snacks & Starters, Handhelds, Greens and Sweet Endings. Snacks and starters include such New Mexico standards as chips and dips and tempura-battered green chile strips, but they also include toasted ravioli and a Brussels dish that sounds almost too good to be true. Eight items adorn the Handhelds section of the menu including an open-face meatloaf and broken tacos. Handhelds are accompanied by your choice of fries, sweet potato waffle fries, onion strings or a side salad. Three salads and four sweet endings round out the menu.

Triple Green Chile Sliders

Remembering Bill once joked “if you ever see me eating a salad, it’s just a pile of whatever fell out of my tacos,”  I didn’t suggest we order the Brussels (crispy Brussel sprouts, apple salad, herb-roasted nuts, Balsamic glaze).  Instead we ordered chips & dips (made-to-order corn chips, fresh pico de gallo, guacamole and green chile queso).   In New Mexico, you can’t go wrong with this terrific triumvirate.  Brixens’ version is among the very best you’ll find.  Rarely does pico de gallo have much pico, a Spanish term which translates to bite.  This one does.  Chopped jalapeños are the reason.  Along with red onions, zesty cilantro and chopped tomatoes, it’s got great flavor along with that bite.  The guacamole is chunky and fresh, also adorned with red onions, cilantro and chopped tomatoes with a little citrus influence for good measure.  Our least favorite (though still good) was the green chile queso which didn’t have nearly as much heat as the pico.

Bill’s introductory meal at Brixens was the triple green chile sliders  (three three-ounce Akaushi beef sliders, triple cheese blend, green chile queso, hot New Mexico chopped green chile, tempura green chile strips), a celebration of New Mexico’s official state vegetable.  Though the three burgers may resemble a jumble of ingredients, Bill declared this burger a winner, prepared to his exacting medium-rare specifications.  He especially loved the Akaushi beef.  Akaushi beef, by the way, comes from red livestock, one of four breeds known collectively as Wagyu (which translates simply to “Japanese cow”).  Similar to other Wagyu, Akaushi beef is buttery and tender but has no lingering fatty aftertaste.  With his burger trio, Bill had fries with a remoulade he enjoyed very much.

66 Crunch Burger with side salad

For those of us who love our burgers moist and juicy, the “gourmet” ingredients we can’t figure out are those with crispy (typically desiccated) qualities.  Onion rings, onion strings and potato strings, I’m talking about you.  Why would any self-respecting chef use you?  My initial inclination when ordering the 66 Crunch Burger (6.6 ounces of fresh ground beef, American and Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickle, Thousand-Island dressing and a “signature crispy potato topping”) was to ask that that crispy potato topping be taken out back and buried.  The desire to honor the chef  and consume the burger as intended won out, however.  There’s still plenty of moistness in this burger, particularly at medium-rare.  There’s also a lot of flavor, especially from the ground beef.  The crispness and freshness of the pickles and the Thousand-Island dressing also stand out.  Instead of fries, my accompaniment was a side salad with a ranch-blue cheese crumbles dressing.  Bill pointed out that arugula sounds like the sound a jalopy’s horn would make.  It makes for a very nice salad ingredient, too, and the blue cheese crumbles were a terrific counterbalance to the richness of the ranch. 

While your dining companion might not be as funny as my friend Bill, you’ll still have a fun time at this rollicking new restaurant on Old Route 66. The 66 Crunch Burger beckons.

Brixens
400 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-2400
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST:  $$
BEST BET:  66 Crunch Burger, Triple Green Chile Sliders, Chips & Dips
REVIEW #1002

Brixens Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Seared – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Seared on San Pasqual in Albuquerque’s Old Town

While you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, sometimes a book title will resonate deeply and you know you’re going to enjoy reading it very much. That’s especially true when a book title warmly reminds you of nostalgic memories long buried in your past. Such was the case when I espied Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner: Stories of a Seared Childhood by award-winning raconteur Regi Carpenter. That title aptly described daily life for the long suffering Peraltas, our childhood neighbors in Peñasco. Mama Peralta, one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet, was such a scatterbrained cook that she used the smoke alarm as a timer. She didn’t sear meat, she cremated it. Even the cockroaches at the Peralta home ate out. So did her children who had more meals at our kitchen table than they did at home.

“Wait,” you ask, “isn’t searing a technique practiced by great chefs?” In the hands of the right person, searing is indeed a culinary technique used to build deep savory flavors. Searing meats, chicken, fish and other proteins at high heat caramelizes their surfaces, imparting a deep-brown crust, especially on thick cuts. Searing crisps the skin on fish and imbues pork chops and other animal proteins a deep layer of flavor in a short amount of time. Alas, Mama Peralta’s idea of searing meat involved heat that was much too low (which allowed her to focus on the marathon phone call sessions in which she engaged at around meal prep time). As a result, the inside of the meat cooked at the same rate as the outside, resulting in very little browning, a zombie-gray pallor, ”carne seca” texture and a perpetually disappointed (and hungry) family.

The Dining Room at Seared

For entirely different reasons, a visit to Seared, a high-end American bistro on San Pasquale Avenue in Albuquerque’s Old Town, also reminded me of our deliciousness-deprived neighbors. At Seared we experienced the type of deliciousness our neighbors never enjoyed when Mama Peralta practiced her unique brand of meat mummification and her family prayed after they ate. Perhaps divine intervention would have occurred had the Peraltas lived on a street named for the patron saint of cooks and kitchens. Then again, Mama Peralto often used the San Pasqual retablo hanging on her kitchen wall as a place to drape dish towels (we could never understand why she needed dish towels when all meals she prepared were served on paper plates).

Seared is located on southwest side of the weirdly confusing, labryinthic Old Town intersection in which Lomas Boulevard meets Central Avenue and San Pasquale crosses both. Getting there is a challenge, but your patience will be rewarded—just as it was more than a decade ago when Jennifer James–then a relative newcomer to the Duke City–plied her craft at the then occupant, Chef DuJour. More recently, the “plain Jane” edifice has been the home of Cheese & Coffee, a popular purveyor of specialty sandwiches, made-from-scratch soups and crisp, fresh salads. Habitues of Cheese & Coffee can still get their favorite sandwiches at the tried, true and trusted San Pasquale location. They just won’t be able to get them after 3PM.

Fried Asparagus with Green Chile Ranch Dressing

Since late-August, 2017, at precisely 3PM, the 2,100-square-foot space begins its daily transformation from simple sandwich shop to Seared, an upscale American bistro “with a French and Italian twist.” The metamorphosis takes an hour during which white linen tablecloths are draped over dining room tables, silverware is laid out meticulously, moveable walls are rearranged and even the art is changed out. The art, by the way, includes colorful portraits of some of your favorite characters from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Signage is also changed out, a relatively easy feat considering there’s no flashy neon or LED involved.

Seared is the brainchild of Jan Barringer-Tenchipe and her husband and business partner Alejandro. Jan has owned the San Pasquale location of Cheese & Coffee for seven years, but with the notorious Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) project having proven deleterious to business, she decided to offer Duke City diners another reason to visit the beleaguered Old Town area. Besides that, she and Alejandro had wanted to work together for a while. Seared aptly describes Alejandro’s cooking style, a style he honed in upscale and fine-dining restaurants throughout the city. During our inaugural visit, both Jan and Alejandro checked up on us several times. Their hospitality and commitment to great food and impeccable service is genuine and one of many reasons we’ll be back.

French-Cut Pork Chop

Another reason, of course, is the menu, a compelling bill-of-fare that defies ordering quickly. You’ll be hard-pressed to decide what to order. Everything listed is appealing. Should you visit on Sunday for brunch, you’ll have two equally enticing menus from which to choose–an intriguing brunch menu and the sumptuous daily menu.  We opted for the daily menu, reasoning that we now have an excuse to return on a lazy, brunchy Sunday afternoon.  Another excuse, not that one is needed, is a pleasant dog-friendly patio with plenty of shade behind the restaurant.  You’ll want to peruse the herb garden where such fresh ameliorants as rosemary, basil, parsley and more can be found.

What surprised us most about the menu is how relatively inexpensive each entree is considering the generous portion size and quality of preparation.  This is fine-dining at near cheap-eats prices.  The appetizer menu ranges from salmon crudo to encrusted brie and a cheese platter offering a diversity of local and imported fromage.  The soup and salad menu includes one of the best described chopped salads we’ve seen on any menu.  If it tastes as good as it reads, it’ll be a hit among Duke City diners.  Entrees showcase all your favorite proteins: pork, beef, chicken and fish.  There’s also a vegetarian entree which just might convert some of us carnivores.

House Cut Loin Steak

It took us nearly ten minutes to decide which appetizer to request. Our choice, the fried asparagus served with a green chile ranch is a winner.  Lightly coated in a tempura batter, the half-dozen asparagus spears are firm and crisp with none of the stringiness you find in poorly fried asparagus (Mama Peralta).  Though addictive on their own, the housemade green chile ranch dressing elevates the fried asparagus to the “must have” appetizer level.  The green chile ranch isn’t as piquant as the one now offered at Dion’s, but it, too, is so good it should be bottled and sold.  Seeing a generous portion of the green chile ranch remaining after we had polished off the asparagus made it easy to decide what dressing would be gracing the salad accompanying my entree.  The salad, an old-fashioned dinner salad with fresh, crisp greens, croutons, cherry tomatoes and shredded carrots is terrific.

Often when unable to choose from two equally evocative entrees, I ask our server to surprise me, always assuring him or her that either choice will make me happy.  The slow-braised French-cut pork chop made me very happy indeed.   As with proteins which are “Frenched,” the meat is cut away from the end of the chop so that part of the bone is exposed, essentially giving it a built-in “handle” which makes it easy to pick up and eat.  Another portion of the pork chop is roughly six-ounces of artfully prepared, absolutely delicious porcine perfection.  The chop is positioned atop a creamy, delectable grain mustard sauce that’s been tempered a bit so as not to obfuscate the delicate flavor of the pork.   The chop is served with a mound of rich potatoes au gratin and a fennel apple salad that rings with freshness. This chop competes with the bone-in pork chop at Mykonos Cafe for “best in town” honors.

German Chocolate Cake

My Kim’s house cut loin steak proved equally formidable, reminding us of the many times we enjoyed loin steak in England.  Though usually basted with chimichurri sauce, Kim asked that it be served on the side.  No sauce was needed.  Sliced thinly into medium-rare visions of pink pulchritude, the loin steak was fulsome and flavorful with a rich beefy flavor.  The herbaceous notes imparted by the chimichurri appealed to me, but my Kim is much more a purist than I when it comes to the flavor of beef.  Accompaniment for this terrific steak came in the form of roasted red potatoes and calabasitas (a substitute for broccolini).  Both are equal to the task of sharing space on a plate with that magnificent loin steak.

Jan is the baker in the family though Alejandro wishes she prepared her German Chocolate Cake more often at home.  It’s simply the best German chocolate cake I’ve ever had at any restaurant, equal to the version made by my not-at-all Teutonic mom.  One of the things we appreciated in this cake is that it is served at room temperature, not obviously thawed to order.  The coconut-pecan frosting is slathered on generously, but not so much that it overwhelms the delicate chocolate cake itself.  Another surprise we enjoyed is the sweet-tart raspberry jam spread atop the frosting.  It’s goodness on top of goodness.  The portion size is very lavish.  Call it a sizeable slab of sumptuousness.

Sorbet Trio: Mango, Lemon and Raspberry

For my Kim, the perusal of a dessert menu stops and ends when she espies sorbet.  Her excitement is in triplicate when a sorbet trio is available.  Seared’s sorbet trio features three of her favorites: mango, lemon and raspberry.  All three flavors are fresh, lively and delicious with the icy coolness you appreciate most when temperatures are unseasonably warm.

Seared is one of the very best reasons to make your way to the Downtown area.  Jan and Alejandro aim to please and their aim is certainly true. 

Seared
119 San Pasqual, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 999-8414
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Fried Asparagus, French-Cut Pork Chop, House Cut Loin Steak, German Chocolate Cake, Sorbet Trio
REVIEW #999

Seared Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Counter Culture Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Counter Culture Cafe in Santa Fe

Counterculture.  Growing up in rural Taos County four decades ago, I don’t know how many of us understood that the cultural and political upheaval of the big cities had moved into our isolated corner of the world.  All we knew was that these unkempt and unwashed interlopers preaching free love and practicing it in communes had invaded our idyllic agrarian communities and shocked our quiet, small town sensibilities.

They rode around in psychedelic school buses and wore multi-colored smocks.  The men among them wore their hair as long as their women.  More shocking was how these strangers walked around unabashedly nude in the confines of the communes they christened with such colorful names as the Hog Farm, New Buffalo and Lama.  There were even rumors of rampant drug use.  The Taos News referred to it as “The Hippie Problem.”  Weekly letters to the editor referred to them as “smelly, crazy-eyed pot and LSD ridden draft dodgers” and worse.

Humongous cinnamon roll at Counter Culture

Humongous cinnamon roll at Counter Culture

Considering the rancor between the locals and the scores of hippies which invaded Taos County in the late 1960s, some might consider it ironic–maybe even more than a bit hypocritical–that Taos designated the summer of 2009 as the “Summer of Love.”  The summer-long celebration marked the 40th anniversary of the iconic counterculture movie “Easy Rider,” some of which was filmed in the area.  It also celebrates the influx of the hippie counterculture Taos County actively combated and tried to eliminate.

Much has transpired in the past four decades.  Taos County (and America as a whole) has evolved into a kinder, gentler, more accepting society.  The strange outsiders of the late 60s are well integrated into the fabric of the communities which initially were so unwelcoming toward them.  Some live in the suburbs they eschewed, work in businesses they once denounced.  Some even vote Republican.  Others remain steadfast to their dreams of a Utopian American society.

Middle Eastern Plate

Today no one thinks twice when encountering the Bohemian influences and remnants of the 60s.  The symbols of counterculture once reviled throughout New Mexico are today even celebrated in such stanchions of the “establishment” as El Palacio, the quarterly publication of the Museum of New Mexico.  Vestiges of counterculture-influenced restaurants are prevalent in Taos (Taos Pizza Out Back among others) and Santa Fe, including one whose very name honors the movement: the Counter Culture Cafe on Baca Street.

The Counter Culture Cafe may remind long-timers of Joe’s Place, the first “alternative” restaurant on Bent Street in Taos which became the center of hippie culture throughout the county.  The Counter Culture Cafe  has a similar laissez-faire attitude and like the long defunct Joe’s Place, serves generally excellent food at very reasonable prices.

Counter Culture Burger with Green Chile on the Side

The Counter Culture Cafe is located only a couple miles west of the tourist-laden plaza and is frequented primarily by locals in-the-know (and tourists who visit Yelp or this blog).  It is ensconced in a “rough around the edges” fashionable artists’ haven away from the more well-known denizens of Southwest art.  The restaurant’s setting has been described as “post-modern, industrial warehouse,” an apt description.  Storefront parking is rather limited, but there is a spacious parking lot across the street.

Two outdoor dining areas–one by the parking lot up front and an enclosed area out back–are very popular, but strictly seasonal.  The indoor dining area is a hub of activity.  When you walk in, you’ll place your order at a counter above which are slate boards on which breakfast and lunch menus are scrawled in chalk.  After you place your order, you’ll be given a number to take to your table.  Then you’ll pick up your silverware, napkins and water (if that’s your beverage of choice) and take them to your table.  If you order wine, it will be served in a juice glass.  Your order will be delivered to your table promptly and professionally.

Proscuitto Egg Sandwich on a Hoagie with Swiss Cheese and Roasted Red Peppers

Seating, more functional than comfortable, is on communal tables, the type of which are used for church-sponsored bingo games.  For the dog-lovers among us, the Counter Culture has a capacious dog-friendly patio.  Our debonair dachshund Dude loves the patio’s vibe.  Make sure you have cash on hand as the restaurant does not accept credit cards (though a local check will suffice).  The restaurant has free Wi-Fi for those of us who have to remain connected at all times.  Minimalist decor includes walls festooned with portraits taken by local photographer Anne Sweeney.

28 November 2009: It’s almost unfair that stationed under glass at the top of the counter are baked goods so tempting you’ll eschew any diet no matter how faithful you’ve been to it.  The chocolate cake is reputed to be among the very best in town while the cinnamon rolls are ridiculously large, like frosted bricks.  Those cinnamon rolls are so good, Santa Fean food writer John Vollertsen put them on his “bucket list,” a collection of must try dishes he would plan to devour before “kicking the bucket.”  Vollertsen wrote, “you gotta love a sweet roll that hangs over the edge of a dinner plate, pull-apart tender and dripping with sugar glaze.  Plop this monster in the middle of a table of friends and demolish.”  Counter Culture’s French toast are made from these cinnamon rolls which are sliced horizontally then battered in an egg wash and prepared as any French toast would be.  Just writing about them added to my waistline.

Chicken Tom Yum Soup

8 September 2017: The menu is an eclectic East meets West meets Southwest mix of Asian, European, New Mexican and American gourmet favorites.  The simple sandwich is transformed into a gastronomic masterpiece in the kitchen.  Soup is sublime, especially, according to Sunset.com, the chicken tom yum which the “life in the west” magazine mentioned as one of “five great bowls of soup in Santa Fe.”  Sunset stated the “chicken tom yum warms the belly and ends in a spicy kick: Lemon grass and lime leaves enliven broth filled with chicken, rice noodles and chile.”  Thai inspired soups are standard menu offerings.  If the Thai Coconut Salmon Soup is any indication, that inspiration runs deep.  Pungent curry, as good as made at local Thai restaurants, is punctuated with the sweetness of coconut and the freshness of salmon wholly devoid of any off-putting piscine qualities.  Served hot, it’s as comforting as any soup.

8 September 2017: A number of salads large enough to feed entire families are available including a Greek salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, red onions and pepperoncini with a red wine vinaigrette).  Better still, order the Middle Eastern platter which includes the aforementioned Greek salad as well as spanikopita, hummus, Kalamata olives and pita bread.  The spanikopita–a Greek appetizer made with pre-cooked spinach, butter, olive oil, feta cheese, green onions and egg in a phyllo dough pastry–is baked to perfection, a flaky and savory warm treat.  A humongous portion of hummus will outlast the two few wedges of pita.

Fall Salad: Roasted Beets, Red Chile Dusted Pecans, Wilted Greens, Blue Cheese and Balsamic Vinegarette

8 September 2017: One of the most popular items on the lunch and dinner menu is the grilled burger, a hamburger prepared to your exacting specifications with grilled red onions on foccacia with lettuce and tomato on the side.  This is simply one of the very best burgers in Santa Fe, a burger on par with what you might find at a high-priced steakhouse.  More than any other burger in the entirety of New Mexico, this one reminds me of the world-famous Ambrosiaburger from the legendary Nepenthe in California’s Big Sur. An enormous hand-formed beef patty is juicy and flavorful while the foccacia canvas is lightly toasted and a refreshing difference from the boring buns served nearly everywhere else.

Ask for green chile for your burger and you’ll be given a small bowl of neon green chile as piquant and flavorful as just about any you’ll find in the City Different.  By piquant, I mean this chile may actually have you reaching for water.  Piquancy isn’t its sole redeeming quality; it’s a fantastic chile.  Condiments, which you’ll have to bus to your table yourself, include Grey Poupon mustard, the gourmet choice.  The haystax fries are about as thin as a spaghetti noodle, or more appropriately shoestring potatoes.  They are perfectly salty, delicious and fun to eat.

Frittata: Pan Fried Eggs, Potatoes, Roasted Red Peppers, Feta Cheese

8 September 2017: Breakfast is served until 5PM every day.  That means at all hours you can enjoy the fabulous proscuitto egg sandwich on a hoagie roll with Swiss cheese and roasted red peppers.  It’s better, if possible, than the American favorite, the ubiquitous bacon and egg sandwich.  The prosciutto has the flavor of a smoked, dry ham while the red peppers are imbued with the slight sweetness that comes from expertly roasting strong, acidic vegetables.  A prosciutto sandwich (grilled prosciutto, provolone cheese, Dijon mustard, roasted peppers with lettuce and tomato on a hoagie roll) is available for lunch, but you’ll miss the egg. 

4 September 2011: Breakfast’s answer to the pizza and the quiche is the Frittata, a dish real men will eat (a reference to a book published in 1982, not a sexist remark).  Frittata is a type of Italian omelet in which cheese and other ingredients are mixed into the eggs and cooked together.  The Counter Culture’s frittata is made with pan-fried eggs, silver dollar potatoes, roasted red peppers and feta cheese. It’s an excellent frittata, second only to the frittata at Torinos @ Home (not on the current menu) as the best I’ve had in New Mexico.  The eggs are fluffy and delicious.  The fillings are in perfect proportion for a balance of flavors.

House Roasted Turkey Sandwich

The Counter Culture Cafe is a throwback to the 60s with a communal feel to it courtesy of having to share your table with strangers (make that people you have yet to meet), busing your table and cleaning up after yourself when you’re done.  There are no interlopers here, only hungry people whose appetites will be sated by some of the best food in town in an atmosphere that feels like the summer of love all year long.

Counter Culture Cafe
930 Baca Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 995-1105
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 September 2017
1st VISIT:  28 November 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING:   23
COST:  $$
BEST BET:  Prosciutto Egg Sandwich, Grilled Burger, Middle Eastern Platter, Cinnamon Roll, Tom Yum Soup, House Roasted Turkey Sandwich, Haystax Fries, Lemonade, Thai Coconut Salmon Soup

Counter Culture Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pig + Fig Cafe – White Rock, New Mexico

Pig + Fig Bakery & Cafe in White City

In its eighth season, the brilliant sitcom Seinfeld helped introduce casual comic book fans to the concept of Bizarro world, a setting which is weirdly inverted or opposite of expectations. In other words, a Bizarro world is a mirror image of conventionality, logic and reality, everything being reversed. Jerry Seinfeld’s polar opposite Kevin, for example, was depicted as kind, selfless and reliable in contrast to Jerry’s indifference, self-absorption and forgetfulness. Gene was quiet, studious, polite and giving while his Bizarro counterpart George was loud, obnoxious, cheap and slovenly. Some people believe there’s a polar opposite—a Bizarro version—of every one of us.

I met “Bizarro Gil” while stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. While I (all modesty aside) consider myself a bit of a renaissance man, Derwin was atavistic, a throwback to the days of Ralph Kramden when men were short-tempered, disparaging and chauvinistic. He couldn’t understand why I would take my Kim out for dinner so often when there we had a perfectly good stove at home. It galled him that Kim often picked where we’d eat. His retort to that grievous affront was “The last time women decided what to eat, they doomed humanity for eternity,” an obvious reference to Eve being misled by a waiter into ordering the most expensive special at Eden Eatery.

Pig + Fig Dining Room

Bizarro Gil, er…Derwin was especially critical of the spontaneity of our meal choices. My Kim and I didn’t decide what to eat until after discussing our options and preferences…and only after hashing over the travails of our day at work. Derwin, on the other hand, laid out a strict schedule of mostly 1950s diner-style American favorites (meatloaf on Monday, roast beef on Tuesday, pork chops on Wednesday and so on) from which his browbeaten bride was never allowed to deviate. What torqued him off most was the egalitarian nature of my relationship with my Kim. We usually cooked together. “Cooking,” he insisted “is women’s work.” He found the notion ridiculous that many of the world’s greatest chefs are men. “Girly men” he called them…and probably me, when my back was turned.

Obviously Derwin had absolutely no any sense of appreciation for independent-minded, entrepreneurial women who owned restaurants and therefore told girly men what to do. Such a notion was incomprehensible, a sheer travesty. His caveat to “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” is that “the kitchen should be at home in a man’s castle”…and “if a woman did have to work outside the home, it should be as a waitress.” He would have hated Laura Hamilton, owner and chef of Pork + Fig Bakery and Cafe in White Rock and would be incensed to learn that Laura’s enviable culinary credentials dwarf those of many men.

Apple Strudel & Strawberry Lemonade

In forging a distinguished career, Laura blazed a path that took her from Houston to Las Vegas, Miami, Paris and back home to Houston before moving to Los Alamos in 2009. She is a graduate of the world-famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and got her baptism by fire at Houston’s prestigious Brennan’s where after only two years, she ascended to sous chef. At Brennan’s she helped co-author two cookbooks and was on the culinary team that launched Commander’s Palace in Las Vegas. From 2001 through 2009, she earned multiple culinary honors nominations in Houston restaurants.

After moving to Los Alamos, Laura took a three-year hiatus from cooking. In January, 2016, she launched Pig + Fig Bakery and Cafe in White Rock as a venue in which she can showcase gourmet comfort food and fine wine. Within a year, the Los Alamos Daily Post was calling it a “White Rock Institution.” In May, 2017, she added tapas to her restaurant’s menu (alas, they’re available only from 4-8p.m.). Breakfast is served from 7-11a.m. and lunch from 11a.m. to 4p.m. Pig + Fig is closed on Sundays (“a man’s day of rest” according to Bizarro Gil). I first learned of this culinary oasis from my dear Zuzu Petals (from It’s a Wonderful Life, not The Adventures of Ford Fairlane).

Pig + Fig Green Chile Stew

Unlike Chicago’s acclaimed Purple Pig which showcases porcine perfection in all its glory, the Pig + Fig offers an eclectic menu. Its appellation (and the tapas menu) is a tribute to Laura’s Spanish mother and Cuban father. During visits to Spain, she frequented tapas restaurants where she developed a fondness for pork and figs. The charming bakery-café is obviously a popular dining destination for denizens of White Rock, a bedroom community where most residents are transplants from throughout the fruited plain and beyond. The queue to place your order begins when you set foot in the door. Pastries under glass may evoke involuntary salivation, if not sheer lust.

Whether you’ve been hiking at Bandelier or just parched from the salubrious mountain air, the strawberry lemonade will slake your thirst and delight your taste buds. It’s served in a Mason jar with plenty of ice to keep it cold and it’s not too sweet or too tart (Goldilocks would love it). Because it was served at the same time as the lemonade, I made quick work of the apple strudel. My well-intentioned willpower to sample only one bite and save the remainder for dessert went out the window. This strudel is reason enough to consider moving to White Rock. It’s light, flaky and fabulous–the optimum ratio of apples to crust!

Hot Pig & Fig Sandwich with Sea Salt Potato Chips

It’s rare that White Rock is mentioned as a dining destination, much less one that serves excellent chile. Pig + Fig may soon be changing perceptions with its eponymous Pig + Fig green chile stew (Kyzer Farms pork chunks, potato, sweet onions, New Mexico green chile). This chile bites back—not so much that it’ll deaden your taste buds, but enough for you to take notice. The Kyzer Farms pork is an order of magnitude better than the pork you’ll find on most green chile stew. If green chile stew is the Land of Enchantment’s most comforting elixir, this one could be an archetype, an ideal example or theoretically perfect form.

Though the lunch menu features such gourmet fare as chicken tagine, summer gnocchi and pork tagliatelle, don’t discount the sandwiches, salads and quiches. If you do, you’ll miss out on such sumptuousness as the Hot Pig + Fig Sandwich (honey-cured ham, arugula, brie and fig jam in a sourdough bread canvas). This exemplar of sweet meets savory meets peppery is an outstanding sandwich in which so many complementary flavors coalesce that grown men (at least this one) will swoon in delight. Fig jam, brie and honey-cured ham are so good together it’s as if that combination has always existed. The peppery arugula is a nice foil.  So are the housemade sea salt potato chips.

There is so much to see and do in Los Alamos county—and now there’s a fabulous bakery and café to entice visitors from throughout the Land of Enchantment. The Pig + Fig is the real deal! Only Bizarro Gil could utter a disparaging word or ten about this place.

Pig + Fig Bakery & Cafe
35 Rover Blvd Suite G
White Rock, New Mexico
(505) 672-2742
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hot Pig & Fig Sandwich, Sea Salt Potato Chips, Pig + Fig Green Chile Stew, Apple Strudel
REVIEW #997

Pig + Fig Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Marley’s Barbecue – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Marley’s Barbecue – Central Texas Barbecue

In Central Texas, Barbecue is more than a way to cook meat –
it’s a way of life, a path to salvation, and
a sure-fire way to start an argument at the dinner table.”
~Central Texas Barbecue

Texans hold certain truths to be self-evident: everything is bigger (and better) in Texas, the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team (who can argue with that?), George Strait is the king of country music, Nolan Ryan was the greatest baseball pitcher who ever lived and the best barbecue in the universe is pit-smoked along the Central Texas Barbecue Belt.  Although Texas may be “like a whole other country,” the rolling plains of Central Texas are like a whole other world when it comes to barbecue. 

That’s not to say pit masters at Texas’s three other barbecue regions–East Texas, South Texas and West Texas–don’t prepare great barbecue or that they don’t regard barbecue as practically a religion.  In fact, pit masters from each Texas barbecue region will defend the honor and bragging rights of their respective regions with the same vigor shown in 1836 by a small group of volunteer soldiers at The Alamo.

Low-and-Slow Smoke Magic Emanates From Two Grills

While conceding that there is great barbecue to be found throughout the Lone Star state, purists and aficionados almost unanimously agree that the state’s best barbecue is to be found in Central Texas with Austin as the region’s epicenter and pockets of barbecue excellence nonpareil found in such small towns as Lexington, Lockhart, Driftwood and Taylor.  Historically, it makes sense.  The Central Texas region was settled in the 19th century by German, Polish and Czech immigrants carrying forward their old country traditions for making sausage and smoking meats.

Central Texas barbecue has a number of distinguishing hallmarks.  First and foremost, beef is king.  That means moist, smoky brisket.  Secondly, barbecue means spice and seasoning rubs (heavy on salt and pepper), not sauces.  Some of the best bastions of barbecue serve their meats naked–no sauce.  Others will give you sauce on the side if you request it.   If you’ve got to have it, sauce is typically tomato-based complemented by vinegar and Worcestershire.  Thirdly, barbecue means low and slow cooking over Texas post oak wood or pecan woods, both of which impart mild smokiness.  For best results, the wood is “cured” for nine to twelve months which creates very little soot when it burns.

The comfy-cozy interior

June, 2014, saw the launch in Albuquerque of a new barbecue joint brandishing the name “Marley’s Central Texas Barbecue.” Located on the northeast corner of Montgomery and San Pedro (at the former home of the beloved Tickles & Snooks Wings & Things), Marley’s seemed primed for longevity at that location. Just over two years later, however, Marley’s moved to the North Fourth street location which previously housed Paddy Rawal’s OM. Accompanying the change of venue was a bit of a name change. No longer does the marquee boast of its “Central Texas BBQ” heritage. Now it’s just “Marley’s Barbecue” though the menu remains the same.

Restaurant employees still sport shirts emblazoned with the slogan “we smoke the good stuff.”  For the most part, the “good stuff” still comes from the Lone Star state.  The restaurant’s Black Angus beef is sourced from trusted Texas suppliers and sausage comes from Elgin, the self-proclaimed “Sausage Capital of Texas.”  The twin Heartland smokers which send smoky invitations to passing motorists come from Missouri, another barbecue-crazed state.  You’ll pass by them on your way into the restaurant.  The aromas are a preview of deliciousness to come.

Sliced Brisket and Elgin Sausage with Bacon Potato Salad and Coleslaw

Conspicuous by its absence is the Texas state flag used to accent the restaurant’s decor at its inaugural location. Other Texas accents remain include looped lassos and cowboy accoutrements on the walls as well as other stereotypical trappings (such as corrugated steel panels on the wall).  One of my favorite Texas accents is Big Red soda which, not coincidentally, is bottled in Austin.  I believe it’s a Texas state law that Big Red should be served with barbecue.

The menu is relatively small.  Meats–sliced brisket, chopped brisket, Elgin sausage (regular or “hot”), pork spare ribs and pulled pork–are available by the half-pound.  Sandwiches and plates are also available.  Sides include Texas pinto beans, coleslaw, fresh-cut fries, mac and cheese and bacon potato salad.  Your best bet is a combination plate, your choice of any two meats served with two sides.  Plates include sweet Vidalia onions, pickles and slices of white bread (often considered a veggie in barbecue circles).

Pork Spare Ribs and Elgin Sausage with Beans and Bacon Potato Salad

3 August 2014: The sliced brisket is moist and tender with a faint smokiness, a very pronounced smoke ring and a good amount of marbling around the edges (off-putting to some, absolutely necessary for others).  It doesn’t have the thick, peppery crust characteristic of some legendary Central Texas barbecue establishments, but for taste, tenderness and appearance, it’s a very good brisket.  Procured from the world-famous Southside Market in Elgin, Texas, both the regular and “hot” Elgin sausage live up to their reputation.  They’re succulent, smoky and delicious with a natural casing that’s easy to bite through, but not cut with the plastic utensils provided. 

28 August 2014: There’s yet another way to enjoy brisket at Marley’s and that’s in the form of a chopped brisket sandwich.  When the menu reads “chopped” it’s not “chopped” as in the Carolina style “hack” job done to pork.  In this case, the brisket is cut into very small cubes.  If anything, the brisket seems even more tender prepared in this fashion and a caramelization not as apparent on sliced brisket is readily discernible with the chopped brisket.  This sandwich is served with onions and pickles.

Chopped Brisket Sandwich with Coleslaw

28 August 2014: No longer on the menu, but perhaps they should be considering the recent taco craze, is brisket tacos. An order of brisket tacos yields three beauteous tacos made on housemade corn tortillas.  The tacos are engorged with chopped brisket and a pico de gallo.  The corn tortillas are quite good and are formidable enough to hold up against the moistness and volume of the brisket and pico.  The brisket is moist, tender and smoky.  Alas, the pico de gallo (tomatoes and green peppers) is rather insipid, lacking any heat.  Fortunately the barbecue sauce has just a tad of heat to lend.

3 August 2014: Although beef may be king in Texas, Marley’s pork spare ribs are no jesters.  While the menu describes them as “fall-off-the-bone tender,” they have just a bit of “give” on them as you pull them off the bone.  That’s the way it should be.  Far too often, fall-off-the-bone denotes overdone.  The ribs are tender and juicy with the spice and seasonings rub more pronounced (you’ll discern a bit more sweetness) than on the other meats.  None of the meats needed sauce to make them palatable, but Marley’s sauce is good for dipping bread into.   It’s sweet, vinegary and has a pleasing bite.

BBQ Nachos

3 August 2014: Sides are no afterthought.  The bacon potato salad, made with in-house cured bacon and a spice blend with personality, is very different from most potato salad served in New Mexico which tends to have a surfeit of mayo or salad cream.  Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, called the potato salad the “closest to my Texas grandmother’s I’ve ever had.”  We agreed the coleslaw was wonderful. Even with New Mexico green chile, the pinto beans have the flavor of Texas beans with sundry spices which detract from the natural flavors of the Land of Enchantment’s “other” official state vegetables (pinto beans and chile).

3 August 2014: As a proud native New Mexican well acquainted and enamored with our state’s fantastic pecan crop, try as I might it was difficult to remain impartial about our pecans, especially when a Texas city has the audacity to declare itself “the pecan capitol of the world.”  Alas, the pecan pie was rich, decadent and absolutely mouth-watering.  Nary a disparaging word can be said about it even though it wasn’t made with New Mexican pecans.  During a visit in August, 2017, my server informed me that pecan pie is no longer on the menu.  Instead, Marley’s now offers a strawberry-rhubarb pie (get it a la mode) which, while quite good–and quite Texan–didn’t please me as much as the pecan pie did.

The oak which generates inviting aromas

23 August 2017:  BBQ Nachos are the sole appetizer on the menu though a heaping portion is enough to constitute a meal.  Available with your choice of pulled pork or chopped brisket, the nachos are served atop a bed of tortilla chips covered with nacho cheese, jalapenos and the house barbecue sauce.   The chopped brisket is redolent with the fragrant aroma of oak and there’s plenty of it.  We found the sauce a bit on the sweet side with tangy notes that couldn’t quite tame the sweetness.  That’s probably why my Kim competed with me for the jalapenos–and she normally wouldn’t touch jalapenos with the proverbial ten-foot-pole.

Marley’s may not be the next best thing to eating at a barbecue restaurant in the Texas Hill Country of Central Texas, but in some ways it’s got those Lone Star bastions of bodacious barbecue beat. Within the air conditioned confines of Marley’s, we were especially grateful not to be waiting in line for two hours for one of Austin’s famous pilgrimage barbecue restaurants to open even as oppressive humidity sapped our energy and mosquitoes the size of helicopters consumed us as eagerly as we would the barbecue.

Marley’s Central Texas BBQ
7520 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 639-5962
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2017
1st VISIT: 3 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Big Red, Pecan Pie, Sliced Brisket, Pork Spare Ribs, Elgin Sausage, Bacon Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Brisket Tacos, Chopped Brisket Sandwich, BBQ Nachos, Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie A La Mode

Marley's Texas Barbeque Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sugar Nymphs Bistro – Peñasco, New Mexico

Sugar Nymphs Bistro in Penasco

Sugar Nymphs Bistro in Penasco

Peñasco has always been the beautiful stepsister ignored by the dutiful suitors who prefer the company of its more glamorous sibling Taos, the mystical art colony to which new age subscribers seem preternaturally drawn.  Sugar Nymphs Bistro is starting to lure some of those suitors away.  A 2002 entry into the Taos county restaurant scene, Sugar Nymphs offers a sophisticated menu that belies Peñasco’s rural simplicity while celebrating its agrarian traditions and serving its local home-grown organic produce.

In recognition of its bucolic setting and its outstanding cuisine, Sugar Nymphs Bistro was featured in the October, 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine, the internationally renown “magazine of good living.” It was one of eight featured rural restaurants where “the welcome is warm and the flavor regional.” Despite the restaurant’s acclaim, to some local residents, Sugar Nymphs remains “that place owned by los hippies.” Those “hippies” would be chef Kai Harper Leah and pastry chef Ki Holste, co-owners of the only kitchen in Peñasco nearly as wonderful as my mother’s.

Cozy, comfortable and delicious: Sugar Nymphs in Penasco. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Sugar Nymphs is warm and welcoming, cozy and comforting, a welcome respite from the mundane.  It has a sort of neighborly Santa Fe type place in which you can kick back in comfort, bask in the morning sunlight and imbibe the aromas of steaming coffee and delectable pastries.  The dining room is homey, its yellow walls festooned with art by the chef herself.  Kai Harper is nearly as adept with a brush as she is with the kitchen implements which do her bidding to create some of the best cuisine in northern New Mexico.

Kai plied her chef skills in some of San Francisco’s most innovative restaurants, including Greens which is considered almost universally as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country. With a chef’s pedigree like that, you know you’re in for a unique dining experience. It’s a dining experience you should start with the restaurant’s signature salad, the Goat Cheese Salad. Available in two sizes, it’s playfully referred to as a “little goat” or a “big goat” and features organic lettuces tossed in sesame ginger vinaigrette with Sonoma goat cheese, dried sweet cranberries and toasted pecans. It’s one of the very best salads anywhere in New Mexico, a salad so fabulous a carnivore would give up meat for it.

The Goat Cheese Salad

The Goat Cheese Salad, one of New Mexico’s best salads

A “best” accolade could also be attributed to the Provencal Pistou made with locally grown pinto beans, sweet parsnips, caramelized onion and tomato.  It’s the perfect cure for a cold winter night.  Amazingly, it may not even be the best soup on the menu.  That honor might belong to a white and pinto bean butternut squash soup that may leave you swooning.  It’s everything Webster had in mind when defining soup as a quintessential comfort food.

The entree which captured Gourmet magazine’s attention is the Chipotle Pork Loin, sautéed pork loin served in medallions with a lively tomato chipotle cream that tantalizes your taste buds.  The magazine should have dedicated its entire issue to that porcine perfection. With a seasonal menu, the fabulous chipotle pork loin may not be available when you visit, but don’t fret. The menu always includes several wonderful entrees with which you’ll fall in love–entrees such as the individual meatloaf with roasted tomato sauce. While meatloaf may be the quintessential comfort food, the Sugar Nymph’s version sets the bar. The meatloaf is seasoned with cumin, Spanish paprika, onion, garlic, oregano, tomato and cheese. It is served with potato gratin and green beans. Unlike the crusty cardboard tasting meatloaf served at many diners, this one is tender and moist. The roasted tomato sauce is fabulous, so good you’ll use it as a gravy on your potatoes.

Meatloaf with roasted tomato sauce

The Sugar Nymphs fabulous meatloaf

Rather than lament the absence of the chipotle pork loin, you might want to celebrate the presence on the menu of the grilled chicken with lemon pepper Pappardelle pasta.  The grilled chicken is prepared the French way.  It is seasoned and placed on the grill under a brick, allowing it to cook rapidly and remain moist after serving.” The grilled chicken is served with a lemon pepper Pappardelle pasta with goat cheese, tomatoes and grilled asparagus. It is a fabulous entree emboldened by the scintillating moist and tender chicken breast.

In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as  state’s very best uptown green chile stew  to the green-chile bison stew at Sugar Nymphs.  It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute.

Grilled chicken with lemon pepper Pappardelle pasta

Lemon pepper Pappardelle pasta

The grilled vegetable lasagna features layers of handmade pasta with Parmesan Béchamel sauce, grilled vegetables and mozzarella and ricotta cheeses.  The Béchamel sauce is positively beguiling, better than I’ve had at any Italian restaurant in New Mexico. Sugar Nymph’s innovative menu varies daily to accommodate local ingredients and keep things interesting for the growing customer base.

A daily standard, however, is the restaurant’s pizza, a rectangular slate oven baked masterpiece that’s as good as pizza anywhere in New Mexico.  That goes for pizza in which one solitary ingredient, say pepperoni, is featured or for one of the fabulous specialty pies.   One appropriately called the “West Coast” features a succulent amalgam of marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, capers, caramelized onion and goat cheese.  It’s a memorable pie!

Meat Lovers Pizza

The restaurant does a booming take-out business with pizza being the most popular to-go item.  For several decades, the closest pizza restaurant to Peñasco has been Pizza Hut in Taos.  As such, that’s the pie against which all other pizzas have been measured for many residents.  It’s heart-warming to see the love of this village for Sugar Nymphs pies. Each pizza is hand-tossed, made with the restaurant’s own dough and sauce and there’s only one size–approximately 14 inches sliced into eight edible triangles.  The Peñasco pie starts with sauce and cheese then is topped with lots of pepperoni and freshly sautéed mushrooms.  It’s made the fabulous fungi very popular in the village.

Speaking of pie, the only pie in Taos county equal to or better than a sugar Nymphs pizza is the restaurant’s signature maple pecan pie topped with real whipped cream.  It’s one of the few items on the restaurant you can top.  A light and flaky crust establishes the foundation for this wonderful pie which is then topped with layer upon layer of rich, sweet maple and chocolate overlayed by pecans.  It is an absolutely fantastic pie, one of several fabulous desserts on the menu.

Maple pecan pie

Maple pecan pie

On Sunday mornings after church, the streets of Peñasco may seem abandoned until just before eleven when out-of-town Landrovers, BMWs and Mercedes Benz head to Sugar Nymphs where they share the gravel parking lot with mud-caked pick-up trucks.  The commonality among the owners of the assorted conveyances on the lot is the desire for perhaps the best Sunday brunch in Taos county.

Brunch is served from 11AM through 2:30PM.  As with lunch and dinner, the menu varies, but one Sunday standard is the presence of scones, perhaps the best we’ve had in New Mexico.  These scones are complementary and even though many patrons will ask to buy a dozen or so to take home, they’re not for sale (although you can order as many as you want with 24-hour notice).  Unlike some scones which are as desiccated as the desert, these are moist and tender yet flaky.  They are fruit filled and fabulous, worth getting up for by themselves.

Scones at Sugar Nymphs

Because man and woman cannot live on scones alone, Sugar Nymphs has a fabulous brunch menu.  It’s limited in the number of entrees, but very well varied.  The menu includes a hot special (which might be beef stew), sandwiches and salads and not so traditional breakfast entrees such as Pantalone French toast.

True New Mexicans can have green chile cheeseburgers for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  Sugar Nymphs’ rendition is one of the very best in the state–six ounces of freshly ground choice beef with Cheddar cheese, bacon and green chile on a housemade focaccia bun.  The green chile isn’t especially piquant, but it’s smoky and flavorful.  Thinly sliced white onions and small plum tomatoes adorn the burger.  The focaccia is hard-crusted and delicious, a perfect canvas for the other ingredients.

Green chile cheeseburger with bacon

Sandwiches are offered with soup, salad or home fried potatoes.  The potatoes are papitas style–small cubes of potato perfection.  Though not exactly a traditional accompaniment for a green chile cheeseburger, savvy diners will opt for the soup of the day.  If it’s the white and pinto bean with butternut squash soup, you might never want French fries again.

A more traditional (for New Mexico) brunch offering is Sugar Nymphs’ green chile scramble, scrambled eggs with bacon, green chile, Cheddar cheese, sweet red peppers and onions served with home-fried potatoes and a buttermilk biscuit.  The red peppers are roasted to perfection, the Cheddar mildly sharp and the bacon crisp.  Strawberry jelly on each table seems made just for that flaky and tender buttermilk biscuit.  This is a great breakfast entree.

Green Chile Scramble

13 August 2017: You almost have to wonder if some restaurants, especially of the upscale genre in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, are trying to dissuade their guests from ordering dessert. “Madness,” you say. Consider this. You’re charged a king’s ransom for desserts that take you three or four bites to consume—even if you’re trying to savor each bite slowly. If you want a dessert that’s worth what you pay for it, visit small town New Mexico. Visit Sugar Nymphs in Penasco. There a slab of chocolate cake is a bounteous, beauteous behemoth. You can eat a hearty portion and still save a generous half for later. There’s no scrimping on portions. Nor is there diminishment of deliciousness. The triple layer chocolate cake is probably the best in New Mexico. So is the organic carrot cake, a rich, moist, creamy slab of swoon-inducing greatness. Reminiscent of the transformative Mexican wedding cake at Mary & Tito’s, it’s chockful of pineapple and flavor.

Sugar Nymphs is in the same building as the Peñasco Theater (formerly known as the El Puente) which was built in 1941 and served as the original movie house for the village.  Colorful murals of local imagery (such as a woman from nearby Picuris Pueblo making micaceous pottery) festoon the entire frontage. During my youth the movie theater specialized in the cinematic exploits of both Western cowboys and the Mexican charros while the area in which Sugar Nymphs is situated once hosted a small restaurant.

Triple Layer Chocolate Cake

Sugar Nymphs has become a popular and utterly delicious reason to visit Peñasco, but while you’re there make sure you take in the Jicarita Peak which governs Peñasco’s skies like a sovereign queen perched on her throne keeping a vigilant watch over her people.

Sugar Nymphs Bistro
15046 State Highway 75
Peñasco, New Mexico
575-587-0311
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 8 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Goat Cheese Salad, Provencal Pistou, Chipotle Pork Loin, Grilled Vegetable Lasagna, Pizza, Scones, Green Chile Scramble, Green Chile Cheese Burger with Bacon, Carrot Cake, Chocolate Cake, Meat Lovers Pizza

Sugar Nymphs Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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