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El Bruno – Cuba, New Mexico

El Bruno in Cuba, New Mexico

Fool that I am, after my first visit to El Bruno’s in 1997, I spent half an hour pondering how best to describe the restaurant in alliterative prose–adobe abode of amazing adovada, beguiling bastion of bountiful burritos, captivating citadel of chile con queso, earthen edifice of enchanting enchiladas–and while El Bruno is all of those and so much more, a simplified yet wholly accurate description would be “one of the five or six best New Mexican restaurants in the state.”

El Bruno’s is almost equidistant between Albuquerque and Farmington, about 75 miles away from each. The drive is spectacular with a preponderance of scenic vistas and an unbelievable, multi-hued topography that includes hulking hoodoos (columns or pillars of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness) and the nipple shaped Cabezon Peak, a dramatic 7,785 foot volcanic formation. The vistas, and especially the stratification of multi-hued earthen layers, may remind you of colorful Navajo sand paintings.

El Bruno (Courtesy of Sarah Rose)

El Bruno (Courtesy of Sarah Rose)

El Bruno’s is also an excellent stopping point on the way to Chaco Canyon and indeed, on one memorable visit to the epicenter of the Anasazi’s world, we had lunch on the way to Chaco and dinner on the way back. Just as Chaco Canyon is steeped in legend, El Bruno’s has culled a legendary reputation of its own. In 2000, El Bruno’s garnered recognition for crafting a Guinness World Record largest burrito, tipping the scales at over 4,300 pounds.

La Virgen de Guadalupe at the gate to the courtyard

While portions at El Bruno’s tend to be prodigious, most diners aren’t out to set records–unless it’s for most enjoyment in one meal. The menu is replete with New Mexican favorites, all of which exemplify the highest standards of the genre.  The recipes come from Hazel Herrera’s family.  Hazel and her husband Bruno (for whom the restaurant is named) have been capturing hearts and taste buds since 1975.

On June 5, 2006, El Bruno was consumed by a fire which destroyed one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in northern New Mexico. El Bruno’s re-opened in early October, 2006, albeit in a smaller location directly across from the original restaurant.  What was once a Frostee-Freeze restaurant and an old house next door was transformed over a period of two years into what is now a spacious restaurant with all the charm of its predecessor.

A mural on the west side of the restaurant

The remnants of the Frostee-Freeze are apparent only from the restaurant’s western frontage.  What was once a relatively small fast-food drive-in is now so seamlessly connected to the sprawling edifice which houses the restaurant that you might think the connection has always been in place.  The Frostee-Freeze portion of the complex now houses the restaurant’s kitchen where Hazel’s recipes are crafted.

As with its predecessor, the rebuilt El Bruno’s parking lot is expansive.  It has to be to accommodate all the hungry patrons, many of whom drive more than an hour just for lunch and dinner.  The exterior west wall includes a colorful mural of a New Mexican woman carrying a basket brimming with green, red and yellow chile peppers while other field hands harvest New Mexico’s official state vegetable from fecund and verdant fields.

The entrance to El Bruno’s is through a wooden bell gate into an expansive courtyard.  A large Spanish bell is poised above the gate as if to call in hungry patrons to a meal with its timbre and tintinnabulation.  On the wooden gate is carved the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas.  To many New Mexicans there is no truer manifestation of welcome.

Chips and salsa at El Bruno's

Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s interior ambience is superb (although what can truly compare to the unrivaled scenery on the way to Cuba). Being surrounded by the enrapturing art of Taos artist Miguel Martinez (renown for painting beauteous women with almond-shaped eyes) as well as by charming antiques makes it an attractive milieu for any meal.  A canopy of huge vigas overhead and earthen-hued tones add to the New Mexican ambience.

El Bruno’s salsa is splendiferous, a magnificent medley of rich, red tomatoes and piquant green chile. While the salsa is superb and you’ll be tempted to consume several bowlfuls, limit yourself to one then order the restaurant’s signature chile con queso. Not only is the creamy chile con queso some of the best you’ve probably ever had, it’s served with crispy tostadas (fried flour tortillas) instead of chips. The queso is enlivened with green chile that bites back.  There’s green chile in every chip.

Chile con Queso--perhaps the very best in New Mexico!

The restaurant is renown for serving some of, if not THE best carnitas in New Mexico. Celebrated among patrons who have sampled these cubed carnivore’s delights, the carnitas are available in two dinner combinations: the poetic sounding carnitas con papitas and the carnitas a la Mex which come with rolled enchiladas, refried beans and homemade tortillas, all of which are wonderful.

What makes these carnitas incomparable is the quality of the sirloin (yes, sirloin, not pork as seems to be the case with most carnitas) which has the charbroiled taste of an outstanding steak. The papitas are silver dollar sized, dusted with fiery red chile and on par with those served at Sadie’s in Albuquerque (meaning they’re the best).

At many New Mexican restaurants when an entree includes a side of, but does not feature, enchiladas, the enchiladas are like an after-thought, generally not very good.  That’s not the case at El Bruno.  While carnitas may be the starring attraction of the aforementioned Carnitas a la Mex (pictured below), the enchiladas are main entree quality.  They are engorged with cheese and topped with your choice of red, green or Christmas style chile.  The beans and rice are topped with melted yellow and white Cheddar.  Garnish includes not only the perfunctory lettuce, but large sprigs of parsley (which has wonderful flavor ameliorating qualities and should not be solely relegated to plate decoration).

Carnitas a la Mex

Another entree for which El Bruno is renown is carne adovada, the incomparable dish of cubed and shredded pork which is marinated and simmered for hours in chile.  At El Bruno’s the carne adovada is among the most flavorful and tender of any in the state.  Its piquancy level is about medium and Mexican oregano is also discernible in its composition.  It arrives at your table steaming hot and just beckoning for you to try.

At El Bruno’s, the sopaipillas are to die for–whether you partake of these puffy treats as a delicious dessert with honey (real honey, not that honey flavored syrup inferior restaurants use) or as an incomparable entree, stuffed with chicken or beef and garnished with beans, cheese, chile, lettuce and tomato.

El Bruno's gigantic sopaipillas

In the July, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, the magazine’s brilliant King of the Road Lesley King chronicled her visit to Cuba, New Mexico, a visit highlighted by her meal at El Bruno.  Her video can be viewed here.  Both her story and video are enthralling.

Eating at El Bruno’s is enchanting dining at its best.

EL BRUNO
Highway 44
Cuba, NM
289-9429

LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET:Carnitas, Salsa, Papitas, Con Queso, Enchiladas, Stuffed Sopaipillas

El Bruno's Restaurante on Urbanspoon

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 like 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 (an exquisite artisanal pasta served at some of the country’s finest restaurants, hotels and resorts) with goat cheese, tomatoes and grilled asparagus. It is a fabulous entree emboldened by the scintillatingly 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 was 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!

Sausage pizza

The West Coast Pasta

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

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.

Note:  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.  Today the theater is home to the theater company called Wise Fool and serves as a circus training and cabaret house.  The theater company conducts ongoing classes, workshops, performances is heavily involved in the community.  It is a nonprofit company relying on donations and benefits to fund various restoration needs.  The theater is once again showing movies, too.

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
Penasco, NM
587-0311
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 4
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

Taos Pizza Out Back – Taos, New Mexico

Taos Pizza Out Back

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” - Matthew 11:28

It’s unlikely the Taos Chamber of Commerce ever used that New Testament passage to lure visitors to Taos, but it would have made an excellent tourism slogan.  Taos, New Mexico seems to have a mollifying effect on weary souls.  It has been easing burdens and removing the yoke of the heavily laden for more than a millennium.

Taos calls its visitors to spiritual odysseys, to commune with incomparable beauty and serenity, to imbibe the exotic melting pot of cultures.  It has inspired dazzling creativity and intoxicated legendary artists such as D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Willa Cather.

Some have, in fact, described Taos as being more a state of mind than it is a location.  That state of mind would be a little unconventional–relaxed and informal with a “live and let live” element.  It’s that element which has made Taos a haven for counter-culture, an accepting habitat for hippies.  Taos does not follow the normal rules of society.  It is Bohemian in every respect.

An unconventional Greek salad

You’ll experience that Bohemian spirit as you turn off Paseo del Pueblo onto a gravel driveway and past a converted home to the restaurant out back, the back of the property, that is.  The restaurant looks like something out of one of the old hippie communes prevalent throughout Taos county in the 1960s.  Exterior construction is reminiscent of a converted simple wooden shed.  There is no gaudy signage or flashing artifice to greet you.  Tables and chairs are strewn throughout the yard as if the remnant of a drunken party or, more likely, a typical New Mexico wind.  Vintage metal signage for A&W and other period piece advertising is tacked onto the wooden fencing.  There are several 1940s style gasoline pumps on the grounds.

Step inside on a cold winter day and the heat of a gas log fireplace envelops you like a warm hug.  Seating in the front room is limited, but the large picture window makes it a preferred venue.  Seating is also limited in the main dining room where a view to the open kitchen is available.  Showcased behind a glass display case are some of the most scrumptious looking pastries you’ll ever glimpse.  The restroom walls and the restaurant’s tables are lined with butcher paper and crayons are provided perhaps to inspire a new generation of Taos artists.  The atmosphere shouts fun.

The wait staff, a mix of local students and Bohemian twenty-somethings, is as friendly and accommodating as possible.  Best of all, they don’t hover over you impatiently.  Order at your leisure.  It’s going to take some time to figure out what you want from among all the intriguing choices (in fact, the menu’s top banner reads “delicious decisions….decisions….decisions….decisions (you get the point).  Ask other diners and they’ll confirm that everything is good.

The Southwest pizza (no sauce)

There’s a lot more on the menu than the name on the marquee (if the restaurant had one).  In addition to customized (you choose the toppings) and specialty pizzas, you can choose from a selection of calzones, pasta dishes, soups and salads.  The salads feature a homemade basil-parmesan vinaigrette dressing that is simply amazing, easily one of the best salad dressings we’ve had in the Land of Enchantment.  If it’s been a long time since you’ve been excited by salad dressing, it’s a guarantee this one will change that with your first taste.  You get two small cream pitchers full of the stuff with each large salad.

The “basic salad” comes with a selection of organic greens (from a local greenhouse), julienned carrots, red cabbage, alfalfa sprouts and purple onion. Order a Greek salad and added to the aforementioned plentitude are feta cheese, Greek olives and pepperonici.

The Greek salad is a welcome departure from most we’ve had in New Mexico (which tend to be an uninspired mix of iceberg lettuce, feta cheese, tomatoes, feta cheese drenched in olive oil).  It’s a Greek salad several orders of magnitude more creative and better than perhaps any other in New Mexico with a melange of fresh and delicious ingredients.  Two small slices of focaccia come with each large salad.  The focaccia is a precursor to just how good the pizza is.

A slice of pizza

If it is pizza you’ve come for, the Taos Pizza Out Back’s pizzaioli artisans toss a mean pie, maybe the best in the state.  The pizza starts with a perfect canvas of organic flour pressed into a thicker than thin sheet of deliciousness.  The edges are braided and seasoned then topped with toasted sesame seeds.  Cheeses are tucked nattily under the breaded edges, a true stuffed crust pizza (eat your heart out Pizza Hut).

Customizing a pizza is an adventure in creativity.  Gourmet toppings include anchovies, artichoke hearts, fresh basil pesto, capers, smoked salmon, toasted walnuts and so much more, but why craft your own pizza when the Outback’s specialty pizzas are time-tested and certified “best in Taos” every year since 1999.

One of the best pizzas we’ve ever had in New Mexico (or anywhere else for that matter) comes from that awesome assemblage of specialty pizzas.  It’s the Southwest pizza, a masterpiece of basil pesto, Feta cheese, green chile, smoked Cheddar, roasted garlic and tomato.  Perhaps conspicuous by their absence are tomato sauce and mozzarella.  There are several pizzas with no tomato sauce, but you won’t miss it when the alternatives are basil pesto or honey chipotle chile sauce. There’s even a true white pizza with no sauce whatsoever.  The menu also includes several vegetarian friendly pizzas.

Smoked Cheddar and Feta cheese make for a bold departure from mozzarella.  It goes without saying that Smoked Cheddar has a smoky taste, but the cold smoke seems to impart a bit of sweetness without diminishing the sharp flavor.  Feta just makes everything better.  The texture of the crust is unique, more bread-like than chewy and those sesame seeds are just terrific.

Cannoli

Not surprisingly desserts are fabulous, and as if you don’t pile on enough calories with the pizza, decadent and rich.  The cannoli, for example, isn’t just a fried pastry tube stuffed with a creamy Ricotta filling.  These are topped with homemade whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and chocolate sauce.  Each bite is an adventure in sinful bliss.

The Taos Pizza Out Back has been pleasing pizza loving palates since 1999. It was originally called Outback Pizza, years before some lousy “Australian” steakhouse, but was sued for trademark infringement and changed its name. By any name, it would be fun and funky, brash and Bohemian. It would be truly Taos.

Taos Pizza Out Back
712 Paseo del Norte
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-3112
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Greek Salad, The Southwest Pizza, Cannoli

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