Which is better: having the best location and the worst tamales, or the best tamales and the worst location? Only soul-free capitalists would choose the former, while a soulful stream of Burqueños regularly choose the tamales at El Modelo.
The location is only bad from a business perspective, and only because it’s a location that nobody will just happen to drive by, ever, unless they are totally lost. The only way to get there is if someone gives you directions. From César Chávez, turn south at the west end of the railroad bridge onto Third. The road immediately hooks you around 90 degrees so you’re facing east, driving practically under the bridge toward the tracks. When you hit the tracks take a right and you’ll see El Modelo, a big, brightly signed rectangular building in the middle of nowhere.
There are two outdoor seating areas, but inside the only seats are two long benches that look like they came out of a church. You place your order and sit on the benches, staring through the tall arches behind the ordering counter and into El Modelo’s massive, high-ceilinged kitchen. With the busy cooks and long tables, it looks like a Renaissance painting.
The menu leans heavily red. Though fewer, green items are strong as well—the long strands of chicken in a burrito are perfectly suited to the permeation of hot, tomatoey green sauce, and the desebrada burrito bets the whole farm on slow-cooked slices of brisket impregnated with green, with melting chunks of fat that’ll give you the “O” face.
The chicharrónes are shameless, still sizzling by the time they reach a picnic table, where perhaps you just want to snag a few bites before bringing it home to your waiting family.
El Modelo’s tamales, which consistently win Best of Burque, are red to the core. In the tamale plate, there is no room for rice or beans. The tamales, completely submerged in red chile, are packed shoulder to shoulder—it’s nearly impossible to tell how many tamales there are, or where one ends and another begins. The masa easily fractures into concentric layers, like tree rings. As the layers loosen, more red sauce finds its way between them, giving an enchilada-like feel to the dish.
People who show up at El Modelo seem pretty pleased with themselves about being in such a hard to find place, as if they’re A-listers invited to a secret club. Inside this industrial neighborhood oasis, parents hold their kids up to the stuffed-animal grabbing machine, grandmothers sit patiently on the pew bench with purses on laps, suited-up professionals and tattooed dudes in wife beaters talk on their phones just outside the door, which is constantly open about 12-inches due to the direct angle of a fan blower.
When their order is up, each customer takes their own package back to wherever it is this treasure will be unwrapped. Doing so in private might be a good idea, as the food’s dangerous combination of nostalgia, fat and chile of can lower your guard. The chicharrónes are shameless, still sizzling by the time they reach a picnic table, where perhaps you just want to snag a few bites before bringing it home to your waiting family. The pork chunks have all of the grease and crisp and chew you could want; I like them with a side of green for dipping.
My most decadent moment came one afternoon on the way to the car. I was so impatient to try my red chile spare ribs that I untaped my carefully wrapped order and pulled a rib out. It was so brilliantly succulent, soft and fully permeated by red chile that I kind of lost it for a half-second. As my eyes flickered back, the remaining meat on that rib slid off the bone onto the parking lot. Without the slightest hint of hesitation I bent down, snagged my rib, and finished the job.