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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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LATEST VISIT: 8 September 2017
# OF VISITS: 6
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