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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1715 Second Street, S.W.
LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2008
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Tamales, Carne Adovada Burrito, Combination Plate #1