Category Archives: Penasco

Road Food Trip From Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico

Sugar Nymphs Bistro is a quirky spot with fabulous food in tiny Penasco, New Mexico

Sugar Nymphs Bistro is a quirky spot with fabulous food in tiny Penasco, New Mexico

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.

A superb cassoulet special at Sugar Nymphs Bistro

A superb cassoulet special at Sugar Nymphs Bistro

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
Sugar Nymphs Bistro on Urbanspoon

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.

The Hot Chick, with its egg, sausage and biscuit, makes a great light breakfast for under $4 at Taos Diner I

The Hot Chick, with its egg, sausage and biscuit, makes a great light breakfast for under $4 at Taos Diner I

Taos Diner I
908 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte (also at 216B Paseo Del Pueblo Sur), Taos
Daily 7 am-2:30 pm
Taos Diner on Urbanspoon

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.)

French toast made of house-made sweet bread smothered in fruit at Gutiz

French toast made of house-made sweet bread smothered in fruit at Gutiz

812B Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos
Tuesday to Saturday 8 am-3 pm
Gutiz on Urbanspoon

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).

Lela holds up monstrous Rice Krispies squares and cookies at The Coffee Spot

Lela holds up monstrous Rice Krispies squares and cookie at The Coffee Spot

The Coffee Spot
900 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos
Monday to Saturday 7 am-5 pm
The Coffee Spot on Urbanspoon

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.

A massive shredded beef torts for under $6 at Torta's Rainbow in Espanola

A massive shredded beef torts for under $6 at Torta’s Rainbow in Espanola

Torta’s Rainbow
7745 North Riverside Drive, Espanola
Daily 9 am-8 pm
Tortas Rainbow on Urbanspoon

Best Burgers in the Mountain West

Big, beefy burger with an onion ring cap at Burger Dive in Billings, Montana

Big, beefy burger with an onion ring cap at Burger Dive in Billings, Montana

Americans are pinkos? When it comes to ordering burgers medium rare at a lot of places, yes. Heck, some burger joints recommend it.

Meanwhile, in Canada, many restaurants are so afraid of incurring the wrath of health inspectors, they cook their patties to a shoe-leather well done.

Thus, regardless of where you come down on the health issue, American places that offer a choice of how you want your six-ounce patty cooked have an automatic hind leg up in my list of top burgers in the mountain west. That’s because a medium-rare or medium burger, like a steak, simply has more flavour and juiciness than dead cow cooked brown all the way through.

Other criteria that move burgers up my list are:

  • Fresh-ground, locally sourced meat from the tastiest parts of the critter
  • Hand-formed patties. Uniform-shaped pucks are evidence, in my mind, of frozen, imported patties of unknown origin. Indeed, they may be an assemblage of many animal parts and fillers
  • Good, fresh buns. An overlooked detail in many places, a good bun shouldn’t disintegrate and should add some flavour and texture to the mix
  • Interesting toppings certainly help, but a really good burger shouldn’t need too much stuff disguising the main attraction: the meat.

Without further ado, here are my highly subjective picks of best red-meat burgers from my travels through the mountain west of the U.S. and Canada. As always, a * indicates a standout.

*Diablo Burger can be a bit hard to find: It’s down an alley or out the back of a mall in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona. Kind of like rounding up stray cows. Which is somewhat appropriate, given all its natural meat comes from local, open-range ranches. My search for this hole-in-the-wall, unadorned place is rewarded with arguably the finest burger I’ve had a recent road trip, and I’ve had some damn good ones. Because the beef is 95 per cent lean, Diablo’s recommends a medium-rare burger. And the six-ounce patty indeed comes out pink in the middle and incredibly moist and flavourful. I choose the Blake burger ($11.75), featuring Hatch chile mayo, roasted green chiles and sharp cheddar. It’s all squeezed inside an excellent, locally made English muffin with a nice touch: DB branded on top. The toppings are aptly subtle and the lettuce and slice of red tomato are on the side, for me to add if so desired. But when the meat is this good, I don’t want distractions, though I do scarf down the hand-cut Belgian fries lying beneath this burger king.

At Diablo Burger, it's not just the cattle that are branded

At Diablo Burger, it’s not just the cattle that are branded

Diablo Burger
120 North Leroux Street, Flagstaff, Arizona (also a Tucson location)
Monday-Wednesday 11 am-9 pm, Thursday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sunday
Diablo Burger on Urbanspoon

Note: Bobcat Bite is relocating to 311 Old Santa Fe Trail in late summer 2013, under the name Santa Fe Bite.

Nearly ducking my head to get through the door of *Bobcat Bite, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I momentarily think I’ve entered a homesteader’s cabin (albeit with a pink adobe exterior and pictures of bobcats lining the walls). That’s because the low, dark wood beams are barely higher than the lanky cook’s head, and there’s scarcely room for half a dozen, tightly spaced tables and about the same number of counter seats; I’m asked to move over to make room for a couple of new arrivals. So the character of the place already has me excited. But really, I’m here for my baptismal GCCB (green chile cheeseburger for the non-cognoscenti), a legendary New Mexico concoction, and Bobcat’s version supposedly tops the list. You know it’s authentic when they ask how you want that 10-ounce, freshly ground chuck patty cooked. I go for the recommended medium rare, with no fries to sully the experience. And boy, does it deliver—two inches of one of the most succulent burgers I’ve ever tasted, with the melted chile-cheese topping adding some pleasant but not obtrusive heat. Bobcat’s GCCB is worth every bite for only $9; I don’t even touch the accompanying potato chips.

Good luck getting your mouth around this green chile cheeseburger at Bobcat Bite

Good luck getting your mouth around this 10-ounce green chile cheeseburger at Bobcat Bite

Bobcat Bite
420 Old Las Vegas Highway, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Wednesday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm, Sunday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Bobcat Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Farm Grill, a happening place in upscale Gilbert, outside of Phoenix, produces its own tomatoes and lettuce that go on its local, natural and fresh-ground chuck burgers. Despite the line, an efficient crew soon produces my Fontina burger ($9.50), loaded with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pecan pesto and melted cheese. It takes a minute to get through the greenery and into the moist, perfectly cooked patty. The burger is wonderfully complemented with an order of rosemary-dill, panko-crumb onion rings, the crispness of the fried batter nicely offsetting the soft, slippery onion inside. What puts things over the top is sitting on the patio on a spring evening—alongside mostly young families at picnic tables—looking out at the farm and a magnificent tamarisk, its giant branches paralleling the ground before reaching skyward.

Joe’s Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert, Arizona
Daily breakfast 8 am-11 am, lunch and dinner 11 am-9 pm
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

At Joe's Farm Grill, most of the fixings are right off the farm.

At Joe’s Farm Grill, most of the fixings are right off the farm.

I’ve covered this in a previous post, but *Bingo Burger, in Pueblo, Colorado certainly produced the best lamb burger I’ve ever tasted. All burgers and fries are cooked to order, and from a counter seat I can watch my thick, hand-formed patty grilled and then finished under a lid. Next come the twice-cooked fries—from San Luis Valley potatoes—tossed with a little salt. My God, these are easily the best fries on the trip, good enough I don’t want to sully them with the roasted garlic dipping sauce. The Goat Hill burger ($9.75, Colorado-raised lamb with goat cheese, mushrooms and a lemon-rosemary aioli) is right up there with it, cooked slightly pink as requested and requiring a well-hinged mouth to bite into.

Succulence of the lamb at Bingo Burger

Succulence of the lamb at Bingo Burger

Bingo Burger
101 Central Plaza, Pueblo, Colorado
Monday to Thursday 11 am-8 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery, in Boulder, Colorado boasts a lineup of 12 third-of-a-pound burgers, the Colorado-raised beef cooked to medium. The signature burger is called Date Night, an unusual medley of roasted poblano peppers, smoked bacon, melted goat cheese and, wait for it, date puree. The combination works surprisingly well, with the sweetness of the dates proving a counterpoint to the poblanos’ pungency. The obligatory accompaniment is a generous serving of hot fries that, the menu promises, will be redone if they’re not perfect.

A "date" with a fine burger at Mountain Sun Pub

A “date” with a fine burger at Mountain Sun Pub

Mountain Sun Pub
1535 Pearl Street, Boulder Colorado (a second location at 627 South Broadway)
Daily 11 am-1 am. Cash only
Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery on Urbanspoon

*Charcut Roast House, in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, breaks most of my road-trip food rules. It’s in downtown Calgary, which means parking and a vacant table are hard to find at lunch. It’s fairly expensive and its signature burger is made of…. pork? Just ignore all this, and go eat at one of the city’s deservedly hottest restaurants. Here’s a tip: Get there before noon and ask for a seat at the counter, where you’ll get a ringside seat of a first-class team of chefs in action.

A friend and I both order the house-ground burger, a massive nine ounces of a unique blend of sausage and beef (70-30%), accompanied by a pile of Parmesan fries and homemade ketchup. Partway through the grill-top cooking, co-owner Connie DeSousa (she finished third in Top Chef Canada; check out the tattoo on her arm), peers over the counter and asks if we’d like an egg and some aioli spread on that burger. After nodding yes, we tuck into these juicy monsters, held together with thick, gooey cheese and a bun that miraculously survives the mauling. Sure, it costs $17, but for one of the better and bigger burgers I’ve had anywhere, it’s still good value. And if we’d paid attention to the name, the Share burger, we could easily have split it.

Charcut Roast House
101, 899 Centre Street SW, Calgary, Alberta
Monday-Tuesday 11 am-11 pm, Wednesday-Friday 11 am-1 am, Saturday 5 pm-1 am, Sunday 5 pm-10 pm
CHARCUT Roast House on Urbanspoon

Honourable Mentions: Sugar Nymphs Bistro, is in the tiny town of Penasco on the scenic High Road between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. But it’s definitely a destination restaurant, thanks to the reputation of owner and former Greens Restaurant (San Francisco) chef Kai Harper Leah. I only had a delicious bite, but my sister said the green chile cheeseburger was one of the best burgers she’s tasted.
Sugar Nymphs Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sugar Nymphs Bistro, Penasco New Mexico

Lovely green chile cheeseburger at Sugar Nymphs Bistro

It doesn’t get more local than Chuckwagon Cafe, in the heart of cattle country, in the town of Turner Valley, an hour’s drive southwest of Calgary. Owner and chief cook Terry Myhre finishes steers at his nearby ranch and has them processed into various cuts for dense, hand-formed burgers or steak benedict.
Chuckwagon Cafe on Urbanspoon

The burgers are almost straight off the range at Chuckwagon Cafe

The burgers are almost straight off the range at Chuckwagon Cafe

At the The Burger Dive, in Billings, Montana, my Blackened Sabbath is an unusual combination of blackened seasoning, blue cheese, bacon, garlic mayo and the kicker, a thick onion ring that provides a contrasting crunch to the luscious burger.
The Burger Dive on Urbanspoon