The winding highway meandering along the murky Rio Grande through Embudo is among the most scenic in the state, particularly in mid-autumn when leaves turn a vibrant shade of gold. You’ll want to drive slowly to take in the foliage, but especially to make sure you imbibe the hazy smoke plumes emanating from Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers which waft into your motorized conveyance like a sweet Texas smoke signal beckoning you to try a combo platter.
The first time we met owners Nancy and Neil Nobles, we were blown away by their genuine humility. Until we told them, the genial proprietors of this corrugated tin shack and kitchen only a couple of hundred feet from the serpentine Rio Grande had no idea that they had been showcased on Roadfood.com. Their giddiness was unique and refreshing. While Neil prepared our meal, Nancy looked up Michael Stern’s eloquent review on the Roadfood Web site.
That review is now framed and posted on the walls of the restaurant’s kitchen. Another glowing accolade–recognition as one of America’s ten best drive-ins by no less than Gourmet magazine–is also posted. That recognition came in May, 2005, culminating five years of growing acclaim. Most recently (October, 2018), Sugar’s was named one of the ten best barbecue restaurants in New Mexico by James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Jamison writing for New Mexico Magazine. In the two decades plus since the Nobles launched Sugar’s, it’s garnered a tremendous following from travelers, many of whom prefer the “low road to Taos” because they can stop here for some of the best barbecue and burgers in the state. By the way, guests don’t just stop at Sugar’s. Many of us make pilgrimages to Sugar’s, visiting from all across the fruited plain. Listen as you stand in line to place your order and you’ll learn just how life-altering some guests find this humble barbecue and burger shack.
Although Sugar’s has made the big time, it remains in every way the modest, unassuming roadside kitchen named for a darling, drooling bulldog who lounged on the front lawn until her passing in 2004. Today Sugar rests in her favorite place just west of the restaurant, an excellent vantage point where she can keep watch over the family and restaurant she loved. Below Sugar’s name on her gravestone reads the loving, touching inscription “Neil’s Sugarbaby.” Even though she’s been gone for fourteen years, Neil still misses her so much it hurts. He’ll never have another bulldog nor will there ever be another Sugar.
Neil’s preferred name for his drive-in would have been “Two Fat Guys” but he figured that was just “too red-necked” for the area. Neil is one of the most down-to-earth and genuine people you’ll ever meet. He served as an airborne ranger in the United States Army, has traveled all over the world, worked in Singapore, and is conversant on just about any topic, but retains an endearing folksy and homespun humor. He’s in love with his riverside venue, but will also tell you that he’d be happy just about anywhere. His happiness is truly intrinsic. Though he’s been at it for more than two decades, he’s still very active in the day-to-day operation of his barbecue joint.
3 November 2018: Like the Sterns, we quickly became enamored not only of Sugar’s proprietor, but of the brisket burrito in which tender brisket is piled on a tortilla and ameliorated by green chile and shredded cheddar cheese. Those folded treasures are truly wonderful with a smokiness that remains on your hands when you’re done (you may never want to wash those hands again). My Kim prefers them with barbecue sauce while my preference would be for a bit more piquancy on the chile, but you can’t have it all. The green chile is of the mild variety, but where it lacks in bite, it makes up in taste. So that it will fit better inside the tortilla, the brisket is chopped, not sliced. Each burrito is roughly the size of one of Popeye’s forearms. They’re big enough to share, but you won’t want to.
Not only does Sugar’s offer some of the best low and slow ‘cue you’ll find in the state, it’s got an ambitious menu that belies just how small the restaurant is. That menu includes a number of burgers, including veggie burgers and turkey burgers. Extras a plenty are available with which you can adorn your burgers. Sr. Plata will someday have to visit so he can determine if the chicken fried steak is worthy of his chicken fried steak trail. Perhaps the most popular items on the menu are Texas-style brisket and sausage rolled into a burrito with green chile. That’s how Cheryl Jamison likes them, too.
Behind the ramshackle kitchen is a huge black smoker in which meats are slow cooked to perfection. That means sausage and brisket in the winter and the addition of ribs in the summer. The brisket is cooked low and slow to imbue it with just a hint of smokiness. It’s as tender as any brisket in New Mexico. Neil tends to the smoker, using an all terrain vehicle to haul split applewood from a large pile he chops himself. A number of picnic tables are positioned under deciduous trees on either side of the restaurant. Those of us with furry four-legged children prefer to eat there.
Barbecue dinner plates are served Friday through Sunday all summer long where you have your choice of pork spare ribs, sausage, brisket or a combo plate–all smoked on the premises and hand-cut. The combo plate means ribs, sausage and brisket–the tantalizing Texas triumvirate no barbecue loving man or woman can resist. The ribs are of the large, meaty variety Fred Flintstone loves and the brisket is melt-in-your-mouth tender, but it may be the sausage that steals the show.
If your experience with sausage results in the spewing of such adjectives as greasy, tough and tasteless, you’ll have to expand your vocabulary with such superlatives as tangy, brimming with flavor and mouth-watering to describe Sugar’s sausage. The barbecue is slathered with a tangy, maybe even slightly piquant Texas style sauce. The Nobles once owned and operated two successful restaurants in Texas so they’re well acquainted with sauces that complement meats. They’re obviously well acquainted with sausage and brisket, too.
While their meats need absolutely no accompaniment, the sauce is so darn good, you might want to drink some of it. Fortunately you can buy a small or large container of the stuff. All dinners are served with homemade corn muffins, pickles and onions as well as your choice of two sides: potato salad, bbq baked beans, onion rings, corn on the cob, coleslaw or French fries. The sides are terrific–so good that each one would make a wonderful meal all by itself. The best of the lot are the bbq baked beans which are perfectly baked so they’re neither mushy nor chewy. Even if you don’t like barbecue baked beans (or if they don’t like you), these will win you over with an equal pronouncement of sweet and tangy flavors complemented by shards of beef brisket.
3 November 2018: An outstanding alternative to barbecue is the aptly named Sugar Burger, a green chile cheeseburger that may well be the very best in Rio Arriba county (and that’s saying a lot). Featuring lightly toasted buns, a half pound sphere of ground chuck and unfailingly fresh ingredients (sliced mushrooms, chopped onion, green chile, bacon, cheese, pickles, tomatoes, and mayo), it’s a behemoth burger that will sate the heartiest of appetites. In the event your appetite is double that of most diners, you’ll want to order the Sugar Daddy, an even larger burger with twice as much of everything. Either way, this green chile cheeseburger is among my top ten in New Mexico, so good it was selected for inclusion on the exclusive New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in both 2009 and 2011.
The menu may be abbreviated, the seating subject to the whims of the elements but the ambience is unbeatable, service is terrific and the barbecue worth the drive from just about anywhere in New Mexico and beyond.
Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers
1799 Highway 68
Embudo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 3 November 2018
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Brisket Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Combination Plate, Baked Beans