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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

  • Elaine Davis says:

    I’m sitting here in SLC with a friend from Fort Worth discussing the Sugar Nymphs Bistro’s mushroom soup. Loved reading your review of the bistro (we have wonderful memories) and wondered if you knew if there was any chance of getting the recipe when we couldn’t find a website for the them. it was worth a try! Thanks!!

    January 29, 2009 at 7:43 PM
  • Bonnie says:

    I love reading your reviews. I tried Sugar Nymphs and loved it. Going back for brunch this Sunday! Bonnie

    February 27, 2009 at 11:46 AM
  • Scott says:

    Service was very slow, 35 minutes to take the order, and when we asked for plates for our pizza the waitress never came back. The pizza was good, but we were upcharged $7.50 for having a 1/2 veggie and 1/2 meat pizza. When I mentioned to this to the owner she said that this was how it was done in restaurants sweetie! As if I was some hayseed that had never been to town. The truth is I have managed restaurants from coast to coast for 30 years. I will not be back and will persuade every one I know not to. Go to the pizza outback in Taos, it’s just as good, but with a patio and good service.

    August 24, 2009 at 10:25 AM
  • John L says:

    We went to Suagr Nymph’s Bistro as a side trip on our way to Chama. It was for lunch on Tuesday so thje menu was quite limited. Tried the goat cheese salad, the soup de jur, the green chile cheese burger, and thje maple pecan pie. The goat and the soup were fantastic. The burger undistiguished. We were very disappointed with the pie. Neither Kay nor I could detect anything maple in it and her taster is more sensitive than mine. And Kay makes much better crust at home. You describe it as light and flakey. I’d describe it as armor pleate. I tried to break off a piece to taste it by itself and could not do it. But again the goat and the soup werwe terrific! Likely try it again if we’re near the neighborhood.

    January 3, 2010 at 10:34 PM
  • Bill Robens (Lobo59) says:

    We lunched here with (adult) kids and grandkids, arriving just before noon on a Saturday. (It helped to arrive a little early as the restaurant was full by a little after noon.)

    We were all quite pleased with our visit. My wife and I had excellent sweet corn quesadillas; we found them unique, relatively light and delicious. My daughter ate every single morsel of her goat cheese and feta salad with chicken and raved about it—repeatedly. Her husband gave his GCCB (just as described by Gil, above) a high grade, and for him the green chile was reasonably piquant. The grandkids liked their cheese quesadillas from the kid’s menu just fine, though my granddaughter would have preferred a toasted cheese sandwich.

    We shared chocolate cake, rhubarb pie and chocolate maple pecan pie for dessert. We liked the cake a lot (one huge piece was enough to feed 4 people!) and chocolate pecan pie, but thought the taste of the rhubarb was masked by too much sweetness in the rhubarb pie.

    Service was prompt and very friendly, though it did take some time to prepare the food in the kitchen, and the prices were reasonable. We will certainly drive north again to sample their fare.

    June 26, 2011 at 11:01 AM
  • What about Victor's Drive-in? :-) says:

    Hey Gil, just had a jumbo burger from Victor’s Drive-in! While not necessarily a very good burger, for nostalgia purposes, it brought me back to cruising up and down “Main Street” Peñasco for Fiesta de San Lorenzo.

    Was wondering if you planned on reviewing Victor’s? Like I said, it took me back. Fries were actually pretty decent with ketchup…

    August 31, 2014 at 4:44 PM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      Hey Noe,
      We visit my mom in Peñasco every two or three weeks, but we always eat at her home. At 39 (Jack Benny years), she’s still a wonderful cook and loves nothing more than a sit-down meal with her family. As such, we haven’t been to Victor’s in years. I also haven’t been to the Fiestas since 1976, but as I recall some of the food stands served terrific green chile cheeseburgers.

      Gil

      August 31, 2014 at 6:47 PM

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