Albuquerque’s Model Pharmacy is an anachronism–a genuine throwback to the days in which old fashioned drug counters shared retail space with lunch counters and soda fountains. In every sense, the Model Pharmacy is chronologically out of place as an independently owned, family operated business in a world of corporate conglomerations that dominate the pharmaceutical business (such as the megalithic Walgreen’s store directly across the street).
The pharmacy’s apothecaries still prescribe and dispense drugs, but an even bigger draw than sundry medicines are the high-end European beauty products and perfumes on the venerable pharmacy’s shelves. Renown food author Jane Stern indicates on the Roadfood Web site she and her former husband and writing partner Michael have made a foodie standard that Model Pharmacy stocks “rare items she’s seen in no pharmacies anywhere else in the world.”
The store’s retail section is a paradise for curiosity seekers who can spend hours browsing through hand-made cards, journals and stationary or scour the glass cases for Swiss Army knives, fine pens, coin purses and women’s jewelry. It wasn’t these curiosities or the pharmaceuticals that brought the Sterns to the Model Pharmacy. It was the lunch counter…and even in the lunch counter, nostalgia abounds. Suspended from the ceiling just over the counter is a Ray Ban sunglasses poster depicting portraiture of General Douglas MacArthur sporting sunglasses which would be in style even today.
The lunch counter offers several very creative sandwiches and salads along with daily specials. Some of my male friends and their stereotypical male affectations chide me because I enjoy the Model Pharmacy so much while they see it as a “ladies’ restaurant.” Portions are not of the “he-men” size my troglodytic friends love. Much of the menu seems to focus on entrees for well-heeled, (the average sandwich is in the eight dollar price range) health-conscious patrons. The menu’s motto even reads “Taste is a matter of choice. Quality is a matter of fact.”
Among the “ladies’ lunch” entrees for which some of my friends might disown me is the salad sampler plate in which you receive a generous sampling of chicken, egg and tuna salads on a bed of lettuce, red cabbage and other leafy legumes. The salad is served with some of the best vinaigrette in town. Though my less civilized pals might shove the chicken, egg and tuna salads between two slices of bread, top it all with ketchup and devour the behemoth in as few bites as possible, my preferred way to eat this is honor the entree’s name and sample it all slowly, lingering over each morsel. This is an excellent salad!
Creativity and fun seem to define many of the sandwich options, perhaps especially the healthy ones. Though most wouldn’t consider peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be particularly healthy, the Model Pharmacy’s rendition seems to be trying to offset the deleterious effects of white bread by serving its PB&J on whole wheat. You can opt for rye or French baguette if you believe the whole wheat is too healthy. Some sandwiches come with potato chips (the thick, crispy Kettle style), a pickle and apple sauce (sometimes cranberry applesauce). In its annual food and wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine named Model Pharmacy’s grilled ham and brie sandwich one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches.
In the category of “not as healthy” is the All-American BLT on marble rye. What makes this sandwich special is the stack of applewood smoked bacon–not just a mere thin layer of bacon, but several tiers of porcine perfection. The bacon is thickly sliced and fried to a delicious crispiness. A thin sheen of mayonnaise, ripe red tomatoes and Romaine lettuce complement the bacon very well. This sandwich is served with a couple of handfuls of Kettle potato chips and applesauce (or in the case of an August, 2010 visit, a cranberry applesauce).
Carnivores like my Homer Simpson-like friends won’t find beef laden burgers on the menu and probably wouldn’t deign to try the gardenburger. There’s really no veracity to the claim by some vegetarians that this meatless substitute tastes just as good as the old-fashioned American burger, but it’s not a bad burger overall. Dressed with caramelized onions and red chile mayonnaise on a French roll, it’s more than palatable. I certainly wouldn’t kick it off my table.
When feeling nostalgic for New York City and there’s no pastrami in sight, my cravings are best sated with a chewy New York style bagel topped with a dill-enlivened cream cheese, capers, ripe tomatoes, red onions and smoked salmon. (the only thing missing is figs and if you think I’m kidding, don’t dismiss my rant until you try it). The Model Pharmacy spreads the dill cream cheese on thickly so it runs off the bagel when you bite into it. The smoked salmon is thinly sliced, firm yet delicate with a slight brininess.
Aficionados of piquant green chile stew might not find the searing green chile taste they crave in the Model Pharmacy’s version of this New Mexico staple, but they will find large chunks of cubed pork treading a thick broth along with potato, tomato and carrot. While not particularly piquant, it is a delicious, hearty stew you will appreciate greatly on a cold winter day.
If you’ve ever spent a balmy day in New York City or Boston and have received much-welcome respite from the sun’s scorching rays at a soda fountain, you’ll love the Model Pharmacy’s authentic soda fountain. It’s one of the few Duke City venues in which you can still find not only have sundaes, banana splits, floats, ice cream, milk shakes and malts but phosphates, egg creams, rickeys and ades. Wow!
In 1978, I was introduced in the Bronx to egg creams, a New York City soda fountain drink. Egg cream is a misnomer because these refreshing, frothy drinks contain nary a speck of egg. They’re made with a mixture of milk and chocolate syrup into which seltzer water is spritzed, causing a foamy drink that resembles the concoction you often see mad scientists drink on old movies. The Model Pharmacy’s version of egg creams takes me back to those innocent days of my youth in Gotham City. Similarly, the chocolate and dreamcicle shakes explode with the flavor of quality ice cream.
For dessert, the hot fruit cobblers (in particular the cherry and blackberry alamode) are exceptional! Fresh fruitiness exudes from the crust with every bite. The peach cobbler, served hot (not warm) with at least two scoops of Dreyer’s vanilla ice cream is little piece of heaven for dessert. The crust is buttery and decadent, the peaches juicy and flavorful, but it’s the ice cream topper that puts it all together.
Although a few blocks north of where Route 66 meandered through Albuquerque, the Model Pharmacy is a living remnant of America’s highway which connected Chicago to Los Angeles and made transcontinental travel fun. While still embracing the best values and traditions of half a century ago when it first launched operations, the Model Pharmacy has certainly kept up with the times menu-wise.
Because its eleven tables and even fewer counter stools fill up quickly, even on Saturdays, you’re well advised to get your seat at the Model Pharmacy’s lunch counter early or you’ll miss out on a great part of America’s past.
3636 Monte Vista, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Milkshakes, Fruit Cobbler, Salad Sampler Plate, Green Chile Corn Chowder, BLT on Marble Rye, Gardenburger, Smoked Salmon on Bagel