On the scenic High Road between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico and along a considerable stretch of artist studios, the nondescript village of Penasco is nonetheless in the middle of nowhere. Yet *Sugar Nymphs Bistro (“City Cuisine, Country Atmosphere”) is a destination restaurant, as we discover when pulling up to a long line of vehicles for Sunday brunch. It could be the reputation of co-owner and former Greens chef Kai Harper Leah. But ultimately it boils down to the outstanding food, which isn’t vegetarian like the famed San Francisco restaurant (and eponymous cookbook) where she once toiled. The carnivorous creations include a dense, moist green chile cheeseburger, steak quesadilla, chipotle pork loin and grilled peach salad with chicken and goat cheese, all served with complimentary scones. Save room for a mouth-watering piece of maple pecan pie. If you have to wait for a table, head across the road to view the fantastic sculptural works of artist Nicki Marx, intricately incorporating feathers, claws and other natural materials.
Sugar Nymphs Bistro
15046 State Road (Highway 75), Penasco, New Mexico
Summer hours: lunch Monday to Saturday 11:30 am-2:30 pm, dinner Thursday to Saturday 5 pm-close, Sunday brunch 10 am-3 pm. Phone 575-587-0311 for hours the rest of the year
On a stormy, blustery mid-April day, there are still tourist tie-ups in Taos; God forbid what the place is like in prime season. Still, there are lots of folks going to visit New Mexico’s premier mountain resort to ski, hike or just gawk. Just don’t count on me joining Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld in buying a ranch here. An eatery tip: Continue north on the main drag, past the traffic jam near the historic plaza, and you’ll find a couple of great local hangouts.
*Taos Diner operates two places: a southern location, geared more to the downtown tourist crowd, and a more utilitarian northern spot, which attracts more locals. I obviously head to the latter for a light, morning bite. The Hot Chick is a nicely-crumbed buttermilk biscuit squeezing together an egg, sausage patty and spicy sriracha mayo. It’s first rate and a Taos bargain at $3.95. A nearby, wide-eyed guy is gamely tackling a monster breakfast burrito (only $8.95). Wanting something egg free? Try the organic fried potatoes topped with chile and cheese. Lunch features burgers made from local, grass-fed beef.
Taos Diner I
908 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte (also at 216B Paseo Del Pueblo Sur), Taos
Daily 7 am-2:30 pm
Things are a little more upscale a block south at Gutiz, a Latin-French-focused diner with interesting creations like a scrambled-egg tower, Parisian crepes and an Andouille sausage-chile bowl at breakfast and a variety of sandwiches on house-made French bread at lunch. I dig into a nice French toast made of homemade sweet bread, topped with a blueberry reduction and fresh fruit (well, other than the blueberries.)
812B Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos
Tuesday to Saturday 8 am-3 pm
Nearby, Lela is running the laid-back *The Coffee Spot, where I get a nice, strong Americano for only $2. But the real find here are monstrous, and I mean monstrous, Rice Krispies squares and chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies—both gluten free and only $3 (half price if there are any left after 3 pm).
The Coffee Spot
900 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos
Monday to Saturday 7 am-5 pm
A few minutes north of Taos is Arroyo Seco. A few shops on a bend in the road, this tiny place is refreshingly casual and worth walking around for a few minutes; there’s a couple of nice public gardens. Check out Taos Cow for great ice cream, coffee, breakfasts and sandwiches. Next door, Abes Cocina y Cantina sells tasty tamales made from hand-ground corn.
I’m pretty much the only Anglo in Torta’s Rainbow, a quick, unadorned Mexican food place in sprawling Espanola, on my way back south to Santa Fe. But the friendly owner greets me in English, and the bilingual menu helps me decipher authentic Mexican items like tongue and tripe tacos, brisket burritos and fresh limeade and tropical juices (aguas frescas). I’m here, though, for my first true torta, a big oval Mexican sandwich, in this case served on an oversized, toasted hamburger-like bun. It’s dense with my choice of desebrada (moist, shredded beef), lettuce and sliced tomato and avocado. I pour a little dish of green salsa over this mix to kick things up a notch; hey, I’ve been in New Mexico a good five days. It’s a damn big sandwich for $5.65, and I can happily tick torta off my virginal Mexican food list. But I’m not quite ready to give tongue a try.
7745 North Riverside Drive, Espanola
Daily 9 am-8 pm