El Modelo – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Modelo, founded in 1929

El Modelo, founded in 1929

Growing up in the 60s in a bucolic village in Northern New Mexico, we had no idea about such things as political correctness or multi-culturalism.  My friends included descendents of Montezuma, scions of the Spanish explorers, Native Americans from a nearby Pueblo and even a few “white” kids.  None of us really thought about things like “inclusion” and “diversity.”  We lived it!

Being kids, there was naturally a lot of good-natured name-calling and teasing, but even when tempers flared, I can’t recall racial stereotype-based derogatory terms ever used in anger.  We thought nothing of teasing the “rich” white kids about their “white as them” Rainbo bread sandwiches and they retorted in kind with insults about the “poor” kids and their chicharones and chile engorged tortillas.

We were teased that “Mexican” (then a collective term for all Hispanics) children received tamales for Christmas so they would have something to open on Christmas morning.  Rather than think it offensive and racist, we laughed and tried to one-up with something better.

It wasn’t until years later that we found out we were supposed to be offended by race-based stereotypes and insults.  It brought to a disappointing crush, the innocence of our childhood.

El Modelo's ladies hard at work in the background

El Modelo's ladies hard at work in the background

Gustavo Arellano has the right idea.  The brilliant and hilarious author of Ask A Mexican, a widely syndicated alternative newspaper column, confronts the “bogeymen of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance” with humor.

In his weekly column, he defeats stereotypes and those who wield them by using deprecatory wit to exaggerate those stereotypes to the point of the ridiculous.

About unwrapping tamales on Christmas he writes “the humble masa is a Mexican’s most valuable weapon come Navidad–it is our fruitcake, a fail-safe, universal present that also functions as an edible visa.”

Making tamales at El Modelo (courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Making tamales at El Modelo (courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

In New Mexico, perhaps no one makes tamales as revered as El Modelo, a restaurant which has been making them since 1929.  The terms “institution” and “local legend” are bandied about too easily, but for El Modelo, those terms fit.

Today El Modelo makes about 1,000 tamales a day and it isn’t just Mexican kids who unwrap them.  Duke City residents are absolutely enamored of El Modelo’s tamales, particularly around Christmas season when we buy them by the dozens.

Compared to tamales sold at other restaurants, these are tamales on steroids.  They are engorged with twice (maybe thrice) the pork as tamales at just about every other dining establishment which serves them.  The masa is just thick enough to contain the moist shards of shredded pork and it is imbued with the flavor of fresh corn.  The pork is very well seasoned (I discerned Mexican oregano, salt and garlic with little if any cumin) and about medium on the piquancy scale.   One tamale from El Modelo is a meal, two is an indulgence and three will put you in the category of competitive eaters.

Carne adovada burrito

Carne adovada burrito

El Modelo opened in April, 1929 in a three-room home owned by Carmen Garcia who converted one room of the house to a “factory” in which she made tortillas by hand.  She rose before the roosters (2AM) and had them ready to sell by breakfast.

Selling tortillas proved so profitable that the enterprising Mrs. Garcia hired neighbor Petra Vargas to make tamales.  Petra eventually taught the entire Garcia clan the art of making tamales.

By 1947, the business had outgrown the one-room operation so Carmen purchased two other homes, moved her family and built the present-day El Modelo where the three-room house once stood.

Carmen’s eldest son Salvador assisted his mother with the expansion and construction of the new building.  He oversaw the restaurant’s day-to-day operations until 1985 when El Modelo was sold to Virginia Chittim and Hector Mendoza who jointly ran it until April 2003.  Today Virginia owns and operates the local landmark.

Combination Plate #1

Combination Plate #1

El Modelo is an experience!  Long lines snake out the door during much of the day as hungry patrons line up to place their orders (the smart ones will call in their orders in advance).  Exclusively a take-out operation, El Modelo has an extensive menu of New Mexican favorites as well as foods for sale by the pint or quart.

As you’re in line, take in the assembly line in the back kitchen where several ladies ply their craft in churning out large quantities of authentic New Mexican fare.  The back kitchen is like a warehouse with large ingredient-filled bags and oversized pots and pans.

Take-out orders are filled in plain Styrofoam containers that bulge at the seams with their content.  You’ll be giddy with anticipation as you head to your car or one of the picnic tables on the complex.  There’s some heavy eating to do when you open those Styrofoam containers.

Trays of tamales at El Modelo (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Trays of tamales at El Modelo (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

The container might include the #1 Mexican Plate which includes a treasure trove of New Mexican favorites: tamale, tostado, enchilada, refried beans, chile, chorizo sauce, a spare rib, chips and a sopaipilla.  The plate is garnished with lettuce.

Your challenge will be to determine what to “attack” first in this inviting family-sized plate.  Every item beckons with a chile endorsed siren’s call.

If you eat the chips first, you can get right to the heart of the matter–the tamale and enchilada.  Eat the tostada first and you’ll uncover the refried beans and Spanish rice.  Better still, place the chips and tostada on the lid of the Styrofoam container while you address the other items.

Super-sized sopaipillas

Super-sized sopaipillas

The highlight of this plate is most definitely the tamale.  It’s not the humongous log you’d get had you ordered a tamale plate, but it’s every bit as flavorful.

The tostada is topped with cheese and a “chorizo sauce” that isn’t nearly as good as El Modelo’s standard red chile.  The chile is about medium on the piquancy scale, not nearly as scalding as it once was.  It’s a flavorful, rich red chile.

El Modelo’s menu includes several overstuffed burritos, all of which are engorged with ingredients and imbued with deliciousness.  The carne adovada burrito (pictured above) can’t be called hand-held.  Hands-held would be more like it.  It’s bigger, by far, than most hand-held burritos and takes a back seat to none of them when it comes to flavor.

Even the sopaipillas are super-sized.  They’re not especially puffy and might be mistaken for misshapen Indian fried bread.  The sopaipillas are served with real honey, albeit in packets, not the honey-flavored syrup too many New Mexican restaurants serve.

El Modelo truly is an Albuquerque institution with a rare staying-power.  It would come as no surprise to see it going strong eighty years from now.

El Modelo
1715 Second Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tamales, Carne Adovada Burrito, Combination Plate #1

El Modelo Mexican Foods on Urbanspoon

Pizza Castle – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pizza Castle on Eubank, N.E.

Pizza Castle on Eubank, N.E.

There’s nothing like a topic about which opinions are wide and varied to stir up a good old-fashioned, highly spirited debate–an exercise in the Constitutional right of free speech.

One topic which has been known to elicit energized dialogue is pizza.  Whether the debate is New York style versus Chicago style, thin crust versus thick crust, brick wood-fired oven versus gas oven, mom-and-pop pizzeria versus the corporate chains or even slices versus whole pie, Americans sound off like England’s Houses of Parliament on CSPAN, only with more class, dignity and intelligence.

Such was the case when the forum topic “Where Can I get a good Pizza” was introduced on Albuquerque’s most popular blog, the Duke City Fix.  The blogosphere became electric with debate as Duke City pizza lovers weighed in with their opinions.

As with most debates on pizza, there was nothing approaching consensus on where good pizza could be obtained.  Respondents lobbied for their favorite pizza, in some cases only to have their opinions dismissed (without prejudice, of course) by others.

The topic was so wonderfully charged that it elicited a related forum topic “The Worst Pies (Pizza) in Albuquerque.”  This debate also raged on with several candidates being named.  Some of the pizzas named in the good pizza forum also made the worst pie list.  That may be ironic, but it’s not at all surprising.  Opinions about pizza really are that wide-ranging.

The 1960s ambience at Pizza Castle

The 1960s ambience at Pizza Castle

Ultimately, the opinion which resonated most with me was that of Adelita who declared, “I’m not sure I’ve ever met a pizza I didn’t like.”

Adelita, by the way, is a wonderful writer who shares her sweet memories of days gone by in Albuquerque every Wednesday on the Duke City Fix.  I look forward to her weekly column with the same giddy anticipation of a child on Christmas morning.  She’s that good.

But, I digress.  One of several candidates which made both the “good pizza” and “worst pies” lists was Pizza Castle, a small pizzeria on Eubank.

Pizza Castle has been tossing dough for more than a decade and like every other pizzeria in Albuquerque, has its supporters and detractors.  It’s one of several Duke City pizzerias for which supporters will invariably claim “it’s the closest to New York style pizza” in town.

Lending credence to that argument is the presence of transplanted Metropolis residents who frequent Pizza Castle ostensibly for a taste like home.  In every one of our visits we’ve run into New Yorkers who tell us the castle’s pizza is “just like New York.”

There are some similarities to New York City pizzerias.  First of all, the slices are enormous and have the pliability to be folded lengthwise, the way so many Big Apple residents eat their pizza.  Secondly, the sauce is slathered on generously which I like only if the sauce is flavorful–and Pizza Castle’s sauce is terrific (maybe good enough for spaghetti good).  Thirdly, the dough is fresh and baked only long enough for just a hint of char on the edges.  Airy pockets of flavor and thick edges are another plus.

A multi-ingredient beauty

A multi-ingredient beauty

The pizza is baked in a deck-oven configuration.  It bakes the pizza evenly so the edges are crispy and the rest of the pie is softer and chewy, perfect for the lengthwise fold.

Quality ingredients are also a bonus.  While several Duke City pizzerias offer green chile with their pies, only a couple (Pizza Castle being one of them) will ask you if you want mild or hot chile.  The chile is neon green and does have a piquant bite, but any self-respecting New Mexican will consider it fairly tame.

Pizza Castle also uses white onions which have a pronounced onion flavor–and it uses minced garlic.

Pizza is available in three sizes–a 12-inch medium, a 15-inch large and an 18-inch jumbo.  Single slices are also available for a pittance plus a small charge for additional ingredients (and there are a treasure trove of those).

If you like cold pizza, ask for the jumbo so you’ll have plenty left over for the following day.  Like truly great pizza, the Pizza Castle’s pies are nearly as good cold as they are out of the oven.

The Pizza Castle also serves sandwiches: six- and twelve-inch cold sandwiches with a variety of condiments and five- and ten-inch hot sandwiches (sausage, meatball and chicken).

A slice of cheese pizza

A slice of cheese pizza

The Pizza Castle’s take-out business is booming.  Could it be because there is very little ambience of which to speak?  To say the building which houses the Castle is showing its age is an understatement.

The counter in which you place and pick up your order is bedecked in 1960s style faux wood paneling.  Red vinyl booths are in dire need of reupholstering.  The time-worn carpet has been trod on heavily and is frayed and tattered in places.  The ceiling tiles are stained and indecorous.  Come to think of it, I’ve visited a few places in New York City with nearly the same ambiance.

Okay, so maybe the Pizza Castle has as much style and panache as a castle dungeon, but one bite of a just-out-of-the-oven slice and you won’t remember what the restaurant looks like.

I’m not sure why the Pizza Castle was mentioned on the Duke City Fix forum’s “worse pies in Albuquerque” discussion.  Perhaps the complainant was having a bad day which I suggest would be much improved by reading Lita’s latest musings.

Pizza Castle
1309 Eubank Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 March 2008
BEST BET:  Jumbo Pizza with green chile, black olives, onion and sausage; cheese pizza slice

Pane Bianco – Phoenix, Arizona

Pane Bianco

Pane Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona

In 2007, the Food Network aired a program called “Top American Restaurants – Bon Appetit Picks the Best” in which the editors of Bon Appetit magazine selected the “top places in this country to enjoy the ultimate incarnations of iconic American cuisine.” Among the iconic American cuisine feted were hamburgers (a category won by Santa Fe’s Bobcat Bite), steak, tacos, fried chicken, barbecue ribs and pizza.

It may have opened a few eyes and furled a few brows when Bon Appetit’s culinarians named the artisan pies masterfully crafted in Phoenix, Arizona’s Pizzeria Bianco as America’s best pizza. The selection came as no surprise to anyone who has dined at the humble pizzeria where pizzaioli Chris Bianco plies his craft.

“Best in America” and even “best in the world” honors are nothing new for Pizzeria Bianco which earned the latter distinction from Travel & Leisure magazine as well as from author Ed Levine in his terrific tome, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.

The one category conspicuous by its absence from Bon Apetit’s celebration of America’s best was sandwiches, perhaps the most iconic American cuisine of them all.

The sandwich, according to my friend Becky Mercuri, the fabulous author of American Sandwich, Great Eats From All 50 States, is the “king of food in America.” Her definitive book on the subject goes on to say that “Americans eat more than 45 billion sandwiches per year, with the average American consuming 193 sandwiches annually.” Doesn’t that sound like an iconic American cuisine to you?

The interior at Pane Bianco

The interior at Pane Bianco

Perhaps one reason the category of “best sandwich” was omitted is because the likely winner would have been the aforementioned Chris Bianco, the passionate perfectionist who purveys the planet’s premier pizza.

At Pizzeria Bianco, three-hour waits to be seated aren’t uncommon. Considering the oppressive heat of Phoenix in the summer, that speaks volumes about Bianco’s inspired pies. For those lacking the stamina or willingness to suffer that summer heat, Bianco provides a fabulous option–Pane Bianco, a small sandwich shop in which the wait is considerably less than at his pizza palace.

Similar to its sibling, Pane Bianco is situated in an undersized building. Unlike its more famous sister, there are no tables inside the restaurant. Instead, there are several picnic tables outdoors on which you can sit. If good fortune is smiling upon you, the tables will be in the shade.

At Pizzeria Bianco, Chris Bianco takes center stage in forming and baking each pizza in a wood-fired brick oven imported from Italy. At Pane Bianco, he’s also got a wood-fired oven, but it’s made of industrial steel, not brick. It makes no difference. Bianco might be the best bread maker in America, too–brick or steel oven not withstanding.

Soppressata with Aged Provolone & Roasted Peppers.

Soppressata with Aged Provolone & Roasted Peppers.

Pane Bianco is remarkably efficient. Walk in and to your immediate right you’ll find the day’s “market” offerings scrawled on a chalkboard. Market offerings vary on a daily basis and feature a different sandwich, salad and focaccia.

Loaves of freshly baked bread are also available–until the restaurant runs out (which may be early). You can also purchase bottles of imported olive oil and other specialty products.

Unlike so many sandwich shops in which the menu of available sandwiches reads like a compendium of every sandwich type there is, the menu at Pane Bianco lists only four sandwiches, including the market sandwich. Each sandwich goes for $8 (as of March, 2008).

Who needs a sandwich menu an arm’s length if the sandwiches you offer are absolutely fabulous! Each sandwich is meticulously wrapped in butcher paper and presented in a mini shopping bag with the Pane Bianco logo. Inside the bag, you’ll find a paper napkin as soft as a chamois. It will come in handy.

To wash it all down, Pane Bianco features only a few bottled drink options, but those include Bubble Up, a lemon-lime soda first manufactured in 1917. A house cola is also available as are sparkling water, iced tea and a fantastic cream soda.

The canvass for each sandwich is a crisp, wood-fired focaccia with a crunchy rim. It is neither too thin nor too thick, the perfect size so that it complements rather than dominates the wonderful flavors of each sandwich. Quite simply, this is–by far–the best panini bread I have ever had.

The sandwiches are elemental in their composition. Each is constructed of only a few ingredients, but the way those ingredients coalesce in flavor is a harmonious melding. Every bite brings with it the sensation of tasting every nuance and feature of every ingredient.

Take, for example, the Soppressata with Aged Provolone & Roasted Peppers. The Soppressata, a Tuscan salami made from choice cuts of cured-dry pork and flavored with black peppercorns, is fabulous–the epitome of salami perfection. Coarsely ground, it is sliced just thick enough to showcase its intense flavor.

The aged provolone is semi-hard with a tangy sharpness most cheese lovers appreciate. The roasted peppers retain the acrid smokiness that comes from being roasted to absolute perfection. This is a sandwich about which songs should be composed.

Tuna with red onion, Gaeta olives, lemon and arugula

Tuna with red onion, Gaeta olives, lemon and arugula

While it seems that the tuna on every tuna sandwich in America includes mayonnaise, Pane Bianco provides a pleasant departure from the norm. The tuna is imported from Portugal and is considered by Chris Bianco to be the best in the world. Having consumed hundreds of tuna sandwiches crafted from just caught tuna in many Massachusetts seaports, I consider myself quite the tuna expert.

The tuna at Pane Bianco lives up to its billing. It may not have quite the “just off the boat” freshness I loved in Massachusetts, but it is fresh and delicious with a surprisingly smooth texture considering it isn’t bound by mayo. As with the Soppressata sandwich, there is no one prevalent flavor in Bianco’s tuna sandwich. Aside from tuna, it is constructed of finely chopped red onion, the most luminous shade of green arugula you’ll ever see and Gaeta olives. It is seasoned with lemon and perhaps Balsamic vinegar to give it a tangy taste so unlike any tuna sandwich I’ve had. It is fabulous!

In 2006, author Ed Levine who proclaimed Pizzeria Bianco the “best in the world,” wrote an article entitled “22 Sandwiches That Will Change Your Life” for Details magazine. One of the sandwiches making this sacrosanct list was Pane Bianco’s masterpiece of housemade mozzarella, local tomato and basil. If you’ve ever had Bianco’s mozzarella, you can understand how such a simple sandwich could make such an exclusive list.

Pane Bianco, like its sibling, is an outstanding restaurant showcasing the talents and passion of one of America’s best chefs. It redefines sandwiches!

Pane Bianco
4404 N. Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ

LATEST VISIT: 12 March 2008
COST: $$
BEST BET: Soppressata with Aged Provolone & Roasted Peppers; Tuna with Red Onion, Gaeta Olives, Lemon & Arugula

1 2