1715 2nd St. SW, Albuquerque, NM
(505) 227-8213

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New Mexico’s state moniker, “The Land of Enchantment,” is apt because of the vistas of rich brown, deep red ,and ochre mesas, rolling hills peppered with varying green shades of pinon, sage, and other scrub, purplish volcanos dotting the horizons, the neon white Cumulus clouds back dropped by royal blue skies, scorched red earth and the tail of the Rockies. Many people believe that there is a calming, mystical energy that permeates the landscape — I’m sure of it. In the 1920s, the state was also blessed with a trifecta of humans — Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglos and El Modelo.

In 1929 (only 17 years after New Mexico achieved statehood), El Modelo opened its doors to service the hungry tummies of the railroad workers stationed across the street in the warehouse and semi-commercial area of 2nd Street. My great-grandmother lived nearby and this was probably the reason our family came upon the El Modelo, although Albuquerque in the 1950s (as I grew up) was a smallish town.

My parents were both Teachers (with a capital “T”) who struggled to provide a comfortable home for a brood of seven children. Though it wasn’t very often, Saturday night became a special occasion if Mom or Dad said they were off to the Modelo to bring dinner home. This was the only version of eating out that I can recall. Most of us kids ordered the tamales, which are made with an unusually thick casing of moist masa (corn meal) that surrounds tender, stringy pork covered in thick, red, hot chile and wrapped in corn husks. The combination is orgasmic. On one occasion I decided to copy my sister, Carol, who most often ordered the tostados — a flat corn tortilla layered with refried beans, shredded cheddar cheese, guacamole, red chile and a little shredded, crisp lettuce to top it off. What I liked about ordering the tostado was that I felt like I was breaking a rule, changing into the fast lane, taking a risk. Carol was and is a beautiful risk taker and I wanted to be just like her.

Because my Anglo mother made them so well, we didn’t buy the sopaipillas — a wonderful pillow-like bread that I believe evolved from Native American fry bread, although various flat versions can be found in South America. Made with flour, salt, baking powder and lard, sopaipillas are elastic when rolled out to 1/4 inch, cut in rectangles and triangles, then dropped in oil that is so hot it is almost smoking. The dough rises to the top of the oil pot and puffs up with air before it is turned over to brown and then taken out with a slotted spoon. New Mexicans use sopaipillas as a bread with meals most often dipping each bite into honey to soften the blow of heat from rich chile, red or green. Sopaipillas can also be stuffed with beans, chile, cheese and lettuce when it transitions from a side to the main course. El Modelo prepares sopaipillas thicker than you would at home in order to accommodate the hefty stuffings.

I always thought of the El Modelo as a factory. When you approach the counter to order your meal you face the generous open windows that expose the teams of hair-netted, aproned women and men hard at work at shiny, long stainless steel tables assembling the tostados, tamales, enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas, chile rellenos (cheese stuffed green chile), carne adovada (pork with red chile and cheese) and of course, tacos, among other New Mexican delights. Once an order is assembled, the workers wrap the precious goods in thick, white butcher’s paper and secure the package with masking tape. Beans, Spanish rice and other liquidy sides are stored in plastic containers — all to make the trek home a safe journey.

Every year when we travel to Albuquerque we always stop at this oasis. We even ate tamales and tostados at 10:00 in the morning one day because we were incapable of waiting for lunch time. To say that El Modelo is a New Mexican institution is to minimize its value — the Modelo is a national treasure, an historic landmark. When you cruise Route 66, slam on your brakes at 1715 SW Second to refuel, replenish, and indulge. You’ll become an addict.

by Jane Hruska
[Photos: John Winder]

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