Monday, October 06, 2008

New Mexico: El Modelo

The front counter at El Modelo.

Once again, I've turned to the pages of Alibi for recommendations on food. This time it's tamales and Alibi says to check out El Modelo.

El Modelo is located in an industrial section of town. There's nothing much around it except for some picnic benches and railroad tracks. It's way off the beaten path and you have to know how to get here - there's no "stumbling across" El Modelo.

Of all the places I've been to on this trip, El Modelo is the most Mexican. Meaning that everyone here speaks Spanish and mostly Spanish, and my Spanish is poor to illiterate. However, the menus are legible and as long as I keep it to "seis tamales" I should be okay. Luckily, the counter girl recognizes that I'm basically just a gringo and speaks English to me.

I order the six tamales and then notice that they're also selling fresh corn masa. This is the real deal, not the Maseca we're used to in Baltimore. This is real, ground masa. And they're selling it. Of course, I must have it. Never mind that I really don't know how to work with masa, I must take some home with me.

When it comes to masa, they've got "prepared" and "unprepared." What's the difference? I don't know. And when I asked the girl, she brought out one of the cucineras but she doesn't speak English and my Spanish is terrible. From what I gather, I'm supposed to do something with the masa, but I'm not sure what, and all they have left this afternoon is unprepared masa.

Rather than stand around there trying to decipher the Masa Code, I decide I'll ask El Presidente at Woodberry Kitchen when I get home. He'll know what to do. Besides, I'm going to miss my flight if I dilly-dally around here longer. I grab by six tamales and two pounds of unprepared masa, bid my new friends goodbye (the girl was cute) and take off for the airport.

Eating the tamal during my stopover in Denver.

Like always, I never have time to spare. From El Modelo, it's a mad rush to find a gas station then off to the car rental return and to the terminal. Oddly, Albuquerque's airport has one shuttle bus stop - they don't drop you at individual airlines like most places. And wouldn't you know it - the shuttle stop is as far away from United's check in counter as you can get at ABQ.

With the tamales in my hand and the masa in the duffle with the chiles, I'm off for home once again. In Denver, I'm feeling a bit hungry and decide to eat one of the tamales. It's succulent and delicious. It's chock full of shredded pork. The corn flavor is light and amazing. I realize that I'm a moron. I should have bought two dozen. Idiot.

To be honest, I'm a bastard. A real dick. I choose a seat near to one of the kitchen workers at one of the food joints in United's Denver terminal. He's hispanic and he's glancing longingly at my tamal while he eats some generic-looking salad and orange juice. I can't help but to feel blessed. What a jerk. I can't help it.

El Modelo
1715 2nd Street SW
Albuquerque, NM 87102

New Mexico: Bob's Burger

Ranchero Burger, Fries, Frito Pie and a Dr. Pepper.

Voted as the Best Frito Pie by Alibi readers, I knew that I had to make a visit to Bob's. And when I saw that they had a location close to the hotel, I knew it was meant to be.

The notion of Frito Pie just sounds magical to me. Since I was a child, I've always loved the greasy corniness of Fritos. Few snack foods are as satisfying as a bag of Frito's and a cold Coke, and the idea of smothering those Frito's with chili and cheese just makes it that much more appealing to a hedonist like me.

Bob's is an Albuquerque chain of fast food restaurants. It's plain, clean and utilitarian. Efficient. It's not even as nicely decorated as a McDonald's but as long as the food is good, what do I care? I'm not going to sit here for four hours eating a twenty course tasting menu, I'm here for Frito Pie - the ultimate in New Mexican working class fare.

But it's lunchtime and I'm also hungry and their Ranchero Burger sounds pretty good. All beef patty, cheese and green chiles with french fries and a large Dr. Pepper. That should fill the ticket. Just sidle up to the counter, place your order, pay and they'll call out your number when it's ready. It's the early part of lunchtime so the restaurant is fairly empty save for a few telephone repairmen and some others who are taking advantage of the lull before the rush.

Finally, my order is ready. It comes on a standard, red tray. One thing that seems popular here in Albuquerque is the use of paper to wrap burgers. It's a nice touch that reminds one of a simpler era rather than the large boxes burgers seem to come in on the East Coast. I feel decidedly American. Decidedly nineteen fifties - without all the ethnic segregation tendencies.

Let me tell you: the burger is absolutely stellar. It's as near perfection in a fast food burger as I've had anywhere. The patty is thin, the buns are thin, the patty is juicy, there's a slice of American cheese and a layer of green chiles. Quite simply, it's amazing.

Inside the Frito Pie.

Most people think that a good burger must be a "big" burger. Go to most fancy burger joints or restaurants and the patties are these thick monstrosities of beef. But a big patty a good burger doesn't make. Same goes for the bun. Many places have these huge buns on top of huge patties because we're obsessed with the More Is More concept of America. In the world of burgers, more is definitely not more, and Bob's seems to have captured that concept and wrapped it in paper topped with green chiles.

The ratio of beef to bread is nearly perfect. It's equal and the flavors are complimentary. The size of both allow one to easily take a bite of burger without having to overextend the jaw and look like some sort of giant ape eating Manhattan. But, more importantly, the size of the bun and patty means that eat bite will be a balance of flavors. Suddenly, you're not overwhelmed by beef or bread, but rather you can actually taste the creaminess of the American cheese and the searing bite of the green chiles. It's nothing short of sublime.

The patty is juicy, the bun is soft, the cheese is creamy and the chiles bring a fire that smolders in your mouth. That fire brings a slight pain, but the flavor is so compelling that you don't want to stop eating. The flavors bring pleasure to your mouth while the endorphins lull you into a state of culinary eroticism. This burger is true food porn at it's best and most obscene.

The french fries, to quote Michelle, are just "meh." Basic, frozen, industrial shoestring potatoes a la McDonald's but not as good. They're perfunctory and that's about it.

But what about the Frito Pie? Afterall, isn't that why I came to Bob's?

The Frito Pie. You know, I must be harboring some sort of prejudice about the Frito Pie because after having it no less than three times during this trip, I'm not finding it as appealing as I would have expected. Bob's Frito Pie was as good as the others I've tried. It's simple: take some Frito's, put them in a paper tray and smother with chili, cheese, lettuce and tomato. It's good. It's decent. But I think my problem with it all is that it's not what I was expecting.

Here's how I'm able to sample so much in one day: I don't finish it all.

I was expecting something more industrial. Something really bad for you. Something that would be a little more gross. And how much more gross can you get by pumping 7-Eleven hot dog chili and nacho cheese over a bag of Frito's? Come on, that's disgusting. But I can imagine it being so good.

So, instead of receiving a monument to obesity and poor health, I'm presented with something that seems relatively gourmet. Instead of the gruel that I expect out of a proper 7-Eleven chili, one can discern the beef from the sauce in the chili served here. Heck, you can see and taste the beans. That ain't no 7-Eleven chili. The cheese is actually shredded cheddar instead of some noxious yellow-orange liquid being pumped out of a can labeled "Nacho Cheese." And then there's the shredded lettuce and chopped tomato. This can't be the nightmare called "Frito Pie" that I dreamed about. This seems too gourmet. As though Thomas Keller waved his hand over the 7-Eleven version and gave us something more palatable.

Bob's Frito Pie is good. Darned good. Denizens of Albuquerque say it's The Best. It's just not what I was expecting. But really, Frito's layered with chili and cheese? No matter how much you dress it down or gourmet it up, it's just a winning combination.

I think I need a Coke...

Bob's Burger
5230 4th Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107

New Mexico: Roasting Chiles

Loading my sack into the roaster.

I didn't plan it. In fact, I didn't even know about it until I saw these iron roasters set up in parking lots across the state. Here in New Mexico it's green chile season and it's in full swing. Everywhere you turn in this state are chiles. Red chiles, green chiles, chile wreaths, chiles hanging from the ceiling, it's chile, chile, chile. It's so chile here you might need a jacket. Ha ha.

Hatch Green Chiles Roasting.

For less than twenty bucks, you can buy a forty pound sack of freshly picked Hatch Green Chiles and have them roasted for you while you wait. Wow. Who would have thought? Back at home, roasted poblano peppers is a real pain in the butt. You're there, over an open fire (or searing oven) charring your peppers so you can skin them. It's time and labor intensive.

Unloading and bagging.

But here in New Mexico, they do all that for you. And they've got the contraption to do it. Simply take your bag of chiles, load it into the expanded steel drum and fire up the burners. The drum rotates and roasts the chiles. Seven minutes later, it's done and you're on your way to chile heaven.

My green chile booty.

For someone like myself, there are a few logistical considerations to consider. First and foremost, I don't live here. Second, I have to fly home. Third, how much can I really take home with me? All serious things to consider. Happily, my status with United means that I don't pay for checked baggage and the normal weight limits do not apply. That means I can pretty much bring anything home with me, regardless of how much and how heavy. Because of this, I always fly with an extra duffle bag stuffed into my luggage - just in case.

Chiles cool in the back of the Xterra.

Fifteen bucks lighter and forty pounds heavier, my chiles have been double bagged in plastic and the placed back in their burlap sack for support. Once they've cooled down sufficiently, I'll seal up the bags and toss it into my duffle for the flight home. It's a simple plan and one that fills the Xterra with the sweet aroma of roasted chiles for the rest of the day.

New Mexico: Albuquerque Coffee

Coffee and an English Muffin in the warm confines of Satellite Coffee.

What kind of coffee place is closed on Mondays?

It's my last day in Albuquerque and now that I'm recovered, I thought I would go check out The Grove again and give their espresso a try but they're closed on Mondays. Drats.

Good thing I noticed those other coffee shops on Central by the University the other night, so I head over there. It's around 8:30am and the streets are light - I guess it's pretty early for college students after a weekend of partying.

First stop is Satellite Coffee.

Satellite is a funky chain of cafes around town and the place looks like an Albuquerque's answer to Starbucks. Imagine an indie coffeeshop with the Roswell close encounters kind of vibe that's seriously trying to emulate a Starbucks environment within those parameter and you have an idea what Satellite looks like. It's slick, glossy and slightly weird, all at the same time.

As you walk in, you can't help but notice Satellite's Toast Bar. An assortment of breads and baked goods ready for toasting. I go for the English Muffin (they seem to be popular in Albuquerque), fork split and nicely toasted with butter.

Originally, I was thinking about a cappuccino but luckily, another customer was ahead of me ordering some sort of milk drink. As I watched the barista do his thing, I decided that the regular drip coffee would be the best bet. Once I saw the barista steaming a 64oz steam pitcher full of milk to the brim (and there were only two of us in line), I realized that perhaps this wasn't the cappuccino for me.

Instead, I went with a 12z cup of Costa Rican coffee. I asked if it was their Terrazu but the girl with my muffin didn't know. Either way, with some sugar and cream, it was an enjoyable cup of coffee to go with my buttered English muffin.

At The Spro, I can barely finish an 8z coffee, much less a 12z coffee and had to discard part of it. Not because I didn't enjoy it, but rather because I just had my fill and I knew that I had one more stop to make.

The Macchiato at Ecco Espresso.

Just a block or so away from Satellite is Ecco Espresso & Gelato. I don't know what it is with espresso and gelato places but they seem like an odd combination to me.

If one were to base their espresso expectations on decor alone, you wouldn't expect much from Ecco. That said, you probably wouldn't expect much from The Spro either. Ecco is a large and spartan space with slick walls and lots of echo (Ecco?). But I got to see the baristas making a drink for another customer and I was surprised. They actually looked like they knew what they were doing. Time to give them a test drive. Let me have a macchiato.

Here I am, a first time customer ordering a macchiato, I would have expected a query from the baristas asking if we were speaking the same language or if I were speaking Starbucks. There would be none of that. In a few moments, out came a proper macchiato. Just an ounce or two of espresso with a dollop of foam. Proper.

I thought that was pretty confident of them and was impressed by that alone. The drink was rich with bitter chocolate offset by the creamy foam. Perhaps not the best macchiato I've ever had but certainly a very good one. I wondered if any place else in Albuquerque could make drinks like this.

I requested a short pour cappuccino at Ecco.

Ecco follows a more traditional Italian approach to espresso. There's sugar on the counter for you to spoon as you desire and the baristas are cordial but not chatty. There's a mirror on the wall that allowed me to see some of their technique and it looked good. Even the espresso shots came out like dark streams of warm honey. Nice.

Assured that they knew something about our craft, I decided to have another round. This time a cappuccino. While the macchiato remained rooted in tradition, their menu demonstrated that their cappuccino was more American than Italian with three size offerings. I asked the girl behind the counter questions about their smallest cappuccino. In the end, I ordered a double shot cappuccino in a ceramic cup that was only filled about three quarters of the way with milk. That should emulate the size of a proper six ounce cappuccino.

Again, the bitter chocolate notes were there and the cappuccino was quite enjoyable. A nice find here in the desert.

Satellite Coffee
3513 Central Avenue NE
Albuquerque, NM 87106

Ecco Espresso & Gelato
3409 Central Avenue NE
Albuquerque, NM 87106