The winding highway meandering alongside the murky Rio Grande through Embudo is among the most scenic in the state. 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 Nancy and Neil “The Rifleman” (as in originally from Rifle, Colorado) Nobles, we were blown away by their genuine humility. Until we told them, the genial proprietors of this corrugated tin trailer kitchen only a couple of hundred feet from the meandering Rio Grande had no idea that they were 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 posted on the restaurant’s exterior wall. That recognition came in May, 2005, culminating five years of growing acclaim.
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. The Sterns, by the way, also have bulldogs.
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’s traveled all over the world 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.
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).
The green chile is of the mild variety, but where it lacks in bite, it makes up in taste. It is some of the best low and slow ‘cue you’ll find in the state. Equally sublime are the tortillas encasing some of the very best smoked sausage you’ll find anywhere. The sausage isn’t overly spiced as some sausage is apt to be and it’s more lean and far less fatty than most.
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.
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 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.
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.
An outstanding alternative to barbecue is the green chile cheeseburger, a monster sized burger with monster sized taste which doesn’t require a monster sized budget to purchase. Featuring lightly toasted buns, a half pound sphere of ground chuck and unfailingly fresh ingredients, it’s a two fisted burger that will quell the heartiest of appetites. The green chile cheeseburger is among the top ten in New Mexico, so good it was selected for inclusion on the exclusive New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.
Another terrific alternative is the Frito pie which is replete with well seasoned chile, beef, cheese and Fritos corn chips which, in New Mexico, have found a new life and purpose. The menu may be abbreviated, the seating sparse to non-existent but the ambience is unbeatable and the barbecue worth the drive from just about anywhere in New Mexico. Sugar’s is open every day but Tuesday from 11AM to 7PM.
Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers
1799 Highway 68
Embudo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 9
BEST BET: Brisket Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Combination Plate, Baked Beans