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

Old Martina’s Hall – Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos

Between the years 2000 and 2014, The Taos News had the prestigious distinction of being named the best weekly newspaper in the United States by the National Newspaper Association. Although the most famous words in American journalism–“all the news that’s fit to print”–don’t grace its masthead, The Taos News has fairly and objectively reported news of events and personalities that seemingly can exist only in Taos county. Readers like me marveled at the periodical’s ability to refrain from punchline-pocked cynicism when, for a couple of years, three topics perhaps more appropriate for Jerry Springer or The National Inquirer ostensibly dominated the front page.

One topic was the dysfunctional shenanigans of the Questa school board, the behavior of whom warranted a state-mandated suspension. Another was the hubris and arrogance of the five-member Taos County Commission who, despite a spate of unpopular decisions, thought enough of themselves that they named three new buildings in their own honor (so Bill Richardsonesque). The third topic which graced The Taos News repeatedly was that Commission’s refusal to issue a beer and wine license for Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, an absurd, self-serving drama that dragged on ad-nauseum. Obviously the second and third most news-worthy topics were interrelated, not an anomaly in a county historically replete with nepotism.

Bar at Old Martina’s

If that diatribe seems a bit rancorous toward Taos County, it’s not intended to be. Taos County has always been a quirky and special place, albeit long in patience and tolerance with duplicitous political wrangling. In 1981, Merilee Danneman wrote a book entitled Taos by the Tail, a collection of columns she wrote for The Taos News from 1974 through 1979. In her “nostalgic look back at a magical place in a time long ago,” Danneman attributes “everything I need to know about politics” to the Taos County Commission. It’s neither comforting nor funny to see that while the players have changed, political dynamics in Taos County remain the same. It’s the way it is and has always been in Taos County.

By denying a beer and wine license on the grounds of Old Martina’s Hall proximity to the San Francisco de Asis Church, perhaps the County Commission thought themselves to be taking a higher moral ground than previous Commissions. Factors such as precedence and history didn’t seem to matter to these paragons of virtue. You certainly didn’t see any “excuse me while I save the world” righteous indignation on the part of previous Taos County Commissioners who, for generations, allowed the edifice to serve as a rowdy dance hall (and venue for Dennis Hopper’s wild parties).

Dining Room at Old Martina’s

Old Martina’s Hall dates back to 1790, predating the San Francisco de Asis Church by a quarter century.  Sitting directly across the street from the Church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and the photographs of Ansel Adams, the stately adobe structure had fallen into disrepair and appeared ready to return to the dirt from which it was built.  That’s when an unlikely benefactor stepped in.  German cosmetic manufacturer and visionary entrepreneur Martina Gebhardt had visions of restoring the historic dance hall to its halcyon days as a community treasure, a milieu which had long served as the site of weddings and community gatherings. 

Martina spent more than two-million dollars renovating the long-derelict Old Martinez Hall, transforming the crumbling Pueblo Revival building into an enchanting edifice with massive adobe walls and stout viga-and-latilla ceilings.  Though her efforts weren’t universally appreciated, she persevered and after years of contentiousness (and the antics of the Taos County Commissioners), Old Martina’s Hall reopened in 2012.  Renaming the venerable structure from Old Martinez Hall to Old Martina’s Hall was a small concession for restoring an important historical center of community life.

Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

The new Old Martina’s Hall is a magnificent structure inside and out, a perfect complement to the Spanish Colonial church across the street.  Imposing and stately from the outside, it’s a breath-taking experience at every turn when you step inside.  The front room is a combination bar and dining room with light and dark wooden accents throughout.  Bright lights stream into the main dining room where you’ll want a seat by the window facing the Church.  The capacious dance hall is a splendid venue for dinner and a show or dinner and dancing.  New Mexican art, including contemporary and venerable weavings, festoons the walls.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus offer a tempting variety of diverse and delicious delicious served in a unique casual-fine dining atmosphere.  Old Martina’s Web site describes the fare as a “marriage of refined European simplicity with traditional New Mexican dishes.”  The dinner menu showcases a number of fine-dining quality seafood (picture pan seared sea scallops with pomegranate beurre blanc, quinoa pilaf and shaved fennel) and chops (carnivores can’t resist rustic grilled Berkshire pork porterhouse with apple pinon green chile chutney mashed sweet potatoes and anise creamed spinach).

Duck Enchiladas with Posole

Lunch isn’t quite as elaborate (or expensive) and the menu is somewhat abbreviated, but you’re bound to find something exciting…and the accommodating wait staff may even allow you to order something from the breakfast menu.  For the calorically conscious diner, the Healthful Minded Fruit Plate (seasonal fruit served with Greek yogurt, housemade granola and honey comb) is a good choice.  Unlike so many yogurt-granola dishes, this one isn’t rot-your-teeth-sweet.  That’s courtesy of the Greek yogurt which is somewhat thicker and more sour than other yogurt.  Because it’s so sour, the contrast with the sweetness of fruit tends to be more pronounced.  A bit more granola would make this dish even more enjoyable.

Surely New Mexican colonials were no strangers to duck, but it seems that only relatively recently has duck  been widely incorporated in New Mexican dishes.  Though not as traditional on New Mexican entrees as are other proteins, duck certainly lends its unique and delicious flavor profile to any dish in which it’s used.  The duck enchiladas at Old Martina’s are superb!  Rolled blue corn tortillas are engorged with a generous amount of moist, flavorful duck and slathered in your choice of red or green chile (ask for both) unadulterated by cumin.  Both the red and green chile have a pleasant, but not incendiary, piquancy.  Melted white and yellow Cheddar lends a salty richness to the dish while the posole and whole beans are wonderful accompaniment.  A small dollop of guacamole leaves you wanting more.  Frankly, a bit more of everything served on this plate would have been more than welcome.

Pumpkin-Pecan Tart

Desserts are far from standard fare as you’ll see when your server ferries them over to your table.  Next to deciding which Taos County site you’ll visit next, determining which one to order may be the hardest decision of your day.  I couldn’t even default to my usual choice–ordering something I’ve never previously had–because several dessert items fit that criteria.  Ultimately it took a coin flip to settle on the pumpkin-pecan tart, a  miniature pie-shaped pastry resembling pecan pie.  Pecans and pumpkin go surprisingly well together, a melding of diverse flavor profiles that serve as flavor and textural foils for each other. 

If walls could talk, the massive walls at Old Martina’s Hall would probably sing out with alacrity as they once again play witness to family functions and celebrations Taos County-style.

Old Martina’s Hall
4140 Highway 68
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-3003
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Enchiladas, Pumpkin-Pecan Tort, Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

Old Martina's Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Alley Cantina – Taos, New Mexico

The Alley Cantina just off the Plaza in Taos

In April, 2014, Gallup conducted a poll to determine state pride across the United States.  More precisely, the Gallup poll surveyed people in all 50 states to find out what percentage of residents say their state was the very best or one of the best places to live.  Sadly, New Mexico was rated the six worst state to live with only 28 percent of respondents indicating the Land of Enchantment was one of the best places to live. New Mexico was the only state among the bottom ten either not bordering or not East of the Mississippi River.

In recent years it seems every quality of life survey conducted lists New Mexico near the very bottom where we compete with Mississippi and Arkansas for “worst” in virtually every aspect of daily life.  So, what does it say about New Mexico when it is rated number one…that’s first…in the auspicious category of being “absolutely absorbed by the abnormal?”  To arrive at this rating, the Moveto Real Estate Blog actually used Facebook data to determine what percentage of each state’s population had an interest in the paranormal, psychic phenomena, conspiracy and shadow organizations and mythical creatures and mysterious beings.

The pet-friendly patio at the Alley Cantina

Research indicated that largely because of the mysterious UFO crash and subsequent cover-up in Roswell back in 1947, New Mexicans are more apt to believe in conspiracies, cover-ups and the Illuminati.  We, it seems, are also quite fascinated by cryptids (mythical creatures, mysterious beings, Chupacabra, etc) and psychic activity.  Only one state’s citizenry had a greater interest in the paranormal which one dictionary defines as “denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.”

Some of the state’s most active paranormal activity revolves around haunted Taos.  The aptly named The Ghosts of Taos blog believes ghosts are “as much a part of the landscape as the towering hollyhocks, dusty petunias, bancos, portals and adobe walls of Taos Plaza.”  One of the most famous of the Taos ghosts is Teresina Bent, daughter of the first governor of the newly acquired New Mexican Territory who was murdered during an uprising in Taos.  Teresina is said to haunt the Alley Cantina just north of the Taos Plaza.  Numerous sightings and incidents have been reported by both employees and guests.

Coconut Chicken Fingers with Apricot-Ginger Sauce and Celery Sticks

The Alley Cantina actually sits in the oldest building in Taos, a structure built in the 16th Century by Pueblo Indians.  The building initially served as an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail and was later occupied by the Spanish government.  In 1846, it became the office of the ill-fated Governor Bent whose family owned the building for several years.  The property became a restaurant in 1944 under the name “El Patio” and has continuously operated since then, becoming the Alley Cantina in 1997.  

In actuality, the entire building isn’t 400 years old, but large portions of the building remain from the original structure, including the south wall of the kitchen and the east wall of the kitchen and bathrooms (the tiniest bathrooms of any restaurant I’ve reviewed).   Despite the Lilliputian facilities (not enough room for you and for  Teserina Bent), the Alley Cantina is a beloved gathering place in Taos, earning several “Best of Taos County People’s Choice Awards.”  The menu is renowned for its New Mexican food (cumin alert: it’s on every item of New Mexican cuisine) as well as its barbecue and surprisingly, its fish and chips.

Green chile Cheeseburger with Fries

The Alley Cantina may also be known someday for its coconut chicken fingers served with an apricot-ginger dipping sauce and celery sticks.  The chicken fingers are somewhat thickly battered, a crispy exterior belying the moist, tender chicken inside.  While the crust has a pronounced coconut flavor, the generously plated chicken fingers (each one almost as large as the bathrooms) are elevated by the apricot-ginger dipping sauce.  It’s a sauce which should be bottled and sold.  Its personality is assertive without being overwhelming, tangy without being tart and aromatic without being perfume-like. 

Though it didn’t make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, the Alley’s version of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct burger is well worth ordering.  The canvas for this behemoth green chile cheeseburger  is a sesame seed bun with housemade qualities (our server couldn’t tell us who made it).  The burger is constructed with a rather sizable beef patty topped with chopped green chiles blanketed by your choice of Cheddar-Jack or Provolone cheese.  It’s a very good burger even though the green chile lacked the piquancy New Mexicans crave…or perhaps the piquancy was obfuscated by the thickness of the beef patty and the other ingredients (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles).  The burger is served with hand-cut fries.

Fish and Chips

It’s rather rare to find fish and chips in New Mexico described as “famous” as the ones at the Alley are.  As has been discussed on this blog, fish and chips in New Mexico are wholly unlike fish and chips in Great Britain where they’re made best.  The Alley’s fish and chips are, in many ways, a complete antithesis of those I enjoyed by the boatful in England.  First, they’re made from Pacific cod as opposed to Atlantic caught fish.  Secondly, they’re battered (sheathed is a better descriptor) rather thickly–so much so that malt vinegar won’t penetrate until you cut through the breading and expose the succulent white flesh.  That’s when you discover a pretty tasty, light and flaky fish that is surprisingly enjoyable. 

Perhaps if Gallup had conducted its poll at the Alley Cantina, respondents would have been more inclined to show their state pride.  Enjoying good food at a fun, pet-friendly patio would do that for you.

The Alley Cantina
121 Teresina Lane
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-2121
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish and Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Coconut Chicken Fingers

Alley Cantina on Urbanspoon

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