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

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

Osteria d’Assisi – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Osteria d'Assisi

Osteria d'Assisi

Historians have characterized the discovery, exploration, and colonization of the Americas in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as having had three express purposes: glory, gold and God. This holds true in New Mexico where Spanish Explorers may have come for glory and gold, but finding neither, stayed for God.  Believing the large population of native peoples needed to hear the Gospel, the Spaniards established New Mexico first as a colony then as a mission.

The effort to Christianize the native peoples was led by Franciscans, known then as the Sons of St. Francis of Assisi.  The sandal-shod Franciscans carried the Gospel throughout the Indian pueblos, indelibly imprinting Franciscan spirituality into the fabric and soul of New Mexico’s Catholicism.

Evidence of their spirituality remains in the large population of Roman Catholics in New Mexico today, but also in the names given to villages throughout the state. One example is La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco, translated from Spanish to The Royal Village of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi, shortened to Santa Fe.

In addition to being the patron saint of Santa Fe, Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals, birds and the environment, three things which many Santa Feans hold dear.  What better name then for a restaurant than one which honors the humble patron of Santa Fe with its name.

One of the beautiful dining rooms

One of the beautiful dining rooms

In 1995, a restaurant named Osteria d’Assisi, was launched in a renovated home about two blocks north of the historic Santa Fe Plaza.

Fittingly, Osteria is the Italian word for a humble restaurant where wine and tasty food are served.  Osterias are known as much for their hospitality as they are for their cuisine.

The Osteria d’Assisi is renown for its regional Italian cuisine, utilizing the “Mediterranean” approach to its culinary preparation.  This time-honored approach is marked by the use of fresh ingredients and olive oil.  The menu includes house-made pasta, fresh seafood, veal and lamb, locally grazed beef, gourmet pizza, fresh bread baked daily and decadent desserts.

The restaurant’s interior features an Italian decor amidst remnants of an old New Mexico home that includes large vigas in several of the restaurant’s dining rooms.  Kiva style fireplaces set against colorful, multi-hued walls are another reminder that this was once a very nice home in a historic area of the city.

The simple wooden furniture is more functional than it is comfortable.  White linen tablecloths adorn each table while the walls of the main dining room are festooned with colorful paintings.  A small patio, offering the feel of a country villa, is perfect for summer time dining.  In the winter, the patio’s metal grate tables might just have an inch or two of snow on them.

Mozzarella Caprese

Mozzarella Caprese

Befitting its name, the Osteria d’Assisi is renown for attentive service with a wait staff that is both knowledgeable and accommodating.  Nattily attired, the wait staff and bus staff also follow one of the golden rules of good service–don’t hover, but be available when needed.

They also know that diners want bread brought to their tables promptly.  The bread is sourdough bread.  Its crust and bread texture are classic–chewy and airy on the inside with a tangy taste and a hardy crust on the outside.

Each table includes a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and if you’re so inclined, a spray bottle of Trader Giotto’s Balsamic vinegar to spritz onto the olive oil or the bread.  The marriage of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar makes for a nice bread dip.

The menu’s “Minestre e Insalate” (soup and salad) section features a soup of the day as well as fresh minestrone.  A variety of fresh salads is also available, including the Mozzarella Caprese.  This garden-fresh salad is comprised of fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil garnished with baby greens in a very light vinaigrette dressing.

The mozzarella is sliced thickly and laid on top of slightly green tomatoes.  The vinaigrette enlivens the salad without overwhelming it.  It’s a salad that evokes a spring-like feeling

Fetuccini with a Cajun cream sauce

Fetuccini with a Cajun cream sauce

Fresh, house-made pasta is a hallmark of great Italian restaurants and at Osteria d’Assisi, the profusion of pasta options will make it difficult to settle on an entree.

If you’re ravenous for ravioli, there are two distinctly different ways to have it.  The Ravioli di Zucca is a butternut squash-filled ravioli while the Ravioli di Vitello is stuffed with veal.

You might also opt out and enjoy the special of the day as I did during our inaugural visit when the featured fare was fettuccini with a creamy Cajun dressing.  This flavorful mélange also included green peas, shrimp and sausage with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Pizza Bianca ai Funghi e Tartufo

Pizza Bianca ai Funghi e Tartufo

Many Cajun named entrees prepared outside Louisiana seem to focus on intense peppery heat and don’t capture the essence of true Cajun cuisine.  The Osteria’s rendition would make a Cajun proud with a sauce that is not only pleasantly piquant, but creamy and delicious.  Bite into each shrimp and it snaps with the unmistakable texture of freshness.  The pork sausage is also piquant with nary a hint of fennel.  The fettuccini is perfectly cooked.

Gourmet pizza is a favorite lunchtime entree.  Even though only three different pizzas are available on the menu, they seem to fly out of the kitchen.  A traditional Pizza Margherita (fresh basil, mozzarella, tomato sauce) is one option.

Another is the Pizza Bianca ai Funghi e Tartufo, a pizza sans tomato sauce, but replete with assorted wild mushrooms, Fontina cheese and truffle oil.  It’s a beautiful stone-oven-fired pizza covering most of the wooden plank on which it’s served.  The fleshy fungi are perfectly cooked and imbue the pie with a lot of flavor while the Fontina makes it fragrant with fromage.  The crust is light and thin with a nice char and air holes that say it’s perfectly prepared.

In 2007, John Vollertsen, writing for Santa Fean magazine declared Osteria d’Assisi the city’s best Italian restaurant of the year.  “With a name like Lino Pertusini listed as the owner, you know you are getting the real McCoy when dining at this bustling downtown trattoria,” Vollertson writes.

It’s more like the real Moretti, Esposito, Parisella or Marino–as genuinely authentic as any Italian restaurant you’ll find anywhere.

Osteria d’Assisi
58 South Federal Place
Santa Fe, NM
(505) 986-5858

LATEST VISIT: 8 March 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Mozzarella Caprese, Pizza Bianca ai Funghi e Tartufo, Cajun Fettuccini

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