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

14 thoughts on “El Modelo – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. Just made our first trip to El Modelo today.
    Excellent food and yes, the tamale in my combo plate was indeed the best I’d ever had.

    The outdoor seating among the stunning rose bushes added to the excellent experience.

    Portions were more than substantial and given the quality of the food combined with low prices, this could be the best value in Albuquerque.

  2. Gil, how in the world can you rate El Modelo only a 19? As noted in your review, the tamales are the best. Which one of your restaurants that you have ranked higher makes better ones? The carne adobada burrito is the best I’ve had in New Mexico … period. The chicharron burrito is just simply awesome … big chunks of lean pork with just the right amount of fat ….. with green chile, the eater attains instant nirvana.

    1. Great point El Verdadero. What seems even more incongruous is the fact that I haven’t visited El Modelo in ten years. El Modelo’s tamales are legendary, the best anywhere.

  3. Originally from NM.from San jose.grew up on their food but our favorite is the stuffy.I have been trying to make red chili chorizo.any hints.Anna Chavez from North Carolina.

  4. From 1987 to 1995, I spent almost every summer vacation in southwestern Albequerque. I grew up on round steak and rice and gravy like all the rest of us Louisiana cajuns. Mexican food never tempted me until I ate a stuffed sopaipilla from El Modelo. Some days I ate too meals from El Modelo because I couldn’t finish one order ( they were so big.) I will be in Albuquerque on Oct 10 for the Balloon Festival and guess where I am eating! I even still wear my El Modelo tee shirt!

  5. El Modelo has hands down the best carne adovada in the city! Moist and well seasoned, it is great in the burrito, stuffed sopa or all by itself! Between that, the sopas, chicharrone, and the tamales, you get quality food in huge amts that can’t be beat! I prefer the red chile which is flavorful even though it isn’t a hot chile.

  6. My first experience with the El Modelo was in 1959 when I worked in the Bernallio Sheriff Department. I ate there when every possible and introduced my wife to their get food in 1964. We moved away in 1967 but still enjoy their great tamales via Federal Express Priority One to Colorado, to Connecticut, to California, to Washington State and now to Minnesota and whenever we get home to Albuqueruqe. They have the best tamales bar none across this country. In fact its time to order four dozen Monday.

  7. I usually get the tamale plate with two and it’s a huge meal. I really like the burritos alternating between the carne adovada and the carnitas. The only thing I dont like on the menu are the green bean tacos, which are more of a tostada and I wish the red was a little hotter. On a nice day I like to eat at a table outside and It’s worth the drive no matter where in town you live.

  8. Golly, do I love El Modelo. I once was offered a job very near to El Modelo, and I am glad I turned it down, because you can smell El Modelo’s comida wafting through the air for the blocks around, and I probably would’ve gained 50 pounds eating there for lunches!

    Suggested: if you like carnitas and/or chicharrones, El Modelo is an absolutely great spot to get them.

    El Modelo does everything well though on the Mexican side of the ledger, and it is an ideal place to buy a bunch of stuff in “bulk” for supplying a home “buffet” when hosting people for a meal. Their guacamole, their carne adovada….mmmm….all so, so good.

    Just looking at Gil’s photos above make me want to start devouring my PC screen!!!

  9. El Modelo is absolutely the best New Mexican food in the world…I AM NOT EXAGGERATING! The information in this article is correct. It has been open since 1929 and has been a powerhouse since it opened. I have been eating this food all my life and the quality has never changed. My favorite is a stuffed sopapilla then a green talmale! If you ever get the chance check it out and you’ll be addicted!

  10. Hello All,

    Your’re missing out on the best restaurant-quality tamales in New Mexico !!! I’ve lived here all my life and tried other tamales when dining out and they do not come close the the El Model’s. The tamales are far the best in town!! I don’t think that homemade tamales would even come closemand the single portion tamale is well-worth every bite.

    I know that this is the ONLY place that I will get a tamales throughout the year.

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