At the crux of the Nuevo Mexicano cuisine discourse community—if such a thing lives beyond the confines of my living room and thereafter, these pages—is the über-descriptor “home-style,” the variant “home-made” and the related colloquial appellation “Homes.”All serve as reminders that in esté cultura, the ultimate arbiters of legitimacy and goodness emanate from the domestic kingdom, a place where la cocina is the center of human life and activity, where comfort is practically “guaronteed.” It’s where mom is, it is where warmth and succor—things that can preserve and/or build strength, even in the depths of winter—are readily, abundantly available.Now imagine the archetype for that place. It’s very old. It seems larger on the inside than it is on the outside. The kitchen is expansive; busy and bright, it seems to go on forever and probably does.And in front there is a counter. And gathered around the counter are your hipster neighbors, the lady who taught your eighth grade English class and used the word “Aztlán” every goddamn day, your güerita prima Nazarena, a dude in a Bandidos vest, three folks from the office and your mother and her mother and her mother, ad infinitum, ad absurdum … á la modies!As each is served a huge, hand-wrapped portion, they smile beatifically and only somewhat ironically head out the door, toward their real homes. The aromas of red chile simmering, of fresh masa steaming, fill the warm air. Across the street, a glimmering Amtrak train speeds toward Califas.All of that could be a dream, an ideal, or yes, a model that’s remembered and revered even as it’s carried back with a hearty, meaty lunch or dinner to domiciles throughout Burque. Or it could be what El Modelo Mexican Foods is really all about.Cruising old school style to El Modelo is as important to the story about home and its symbolic, memetic and celestial representatives as the cuisine itself. That’s because rolling there a manejar introduces and then immerses eaters in a world where what one consumes is but one spicy aspect—one ray—of a flaming-hot solar identity.For instance, on my latest trip there (straight down Second Street from Downown), I got to check out a ’74 2-door Ford LTD lowrider wearing fine hydraulics and a powder blue finish, capped with a seriously sick sound system and side pipes, too. That came after I trundled past the Guadalupe Overpass on the way to take the Mexican plate ($8.60) and the chile spare rib plate ($8.05) from their home back to mine.Before that, I marveled at the massively metallic rail yards, the stone church, the old elms lining the road, the edge of Barelas jutting out onto a mesa meant for trains and township. By the time I closed in on the joint, having repeatedly been exposed to a culture intent on fortifying and maintaining itself with meat, metal and rock, I was ready for a food fiesta.Hell, I was so happy that I stopped at the Valero near my house on the way back and bought not one, but two plastic bottles of Mountain Dew to go with the repast whose execution I had successfully initiated amidst a nearly mythic setting.Each of the “plates” from El Modelo are equivalent to about two and a half servings at any other Nuevo Mexicano restaurant in this town, by my reckoning. We’ll be deep in grub over at mi chante until Saturday because of that, although it may go quicker because there’s so much to dig about El Modelo.The rice was lightly seasoned and accented with flavorful bits of roasted pork, a combination that says West Coast (Read: Chinese) influence, but may in fact have local precedent. I remember a Mexican-Chinese restaurant called China Garden next to the Guild Cinema where something similar was served. The owner told me he had been a cook at all sortsa Mexican joints in Dirt City before hooking up with a Chicana waitress and opening their own place. And El Modelo’s been open for 90 years … I’ll leave the speculation up to you.The sopaipillas ($1.25 ea.) at El Modelo are the size of tortillas. Serio. More like Pueblo-style fry bread than the similarly named accompaniments at places like Taco Sal or Papa Felipe’s (I’ll head to the Heights next month for a taste of “mall” Mexican, btw). They are obviously made to help out with the heavy lifting needed to demolish gastronomic gargantuans like the aforementioned Mexican plate.But the most totally awesome part of this experience—even better than a glimpse of a rare ride like the LTD—was the order of spare ribs. My dad used to attempt a similar recipe about every five years, back in the old days. But he never quite got it to run at 100 percent. Of course that’s one of the reasons he frequented El Modelo and how I knew about the eatery in the first place.As for the meat itself, well you couldn’t ask for any finer plate of spare ribs in this town, barbecue joints be damned. The flesh comes right off the bone, succulent and smoky, coated in an unforgiving, alluringly hot red chile sauce that sticks to the meat, adding a burst of flavor that is deeply satisfying and potentially addictive.This kind of taste combination is particularly potent in the winter; you bet your nalgas that eating these kinda ribs can cause a sharpening of mental focus and increased sensory acuity. These are conditions the season demands; luckily, El Modelo is there to provide such sustenance.If—like in astronomy, the sun—there is a center from whence emanates not warm sunlight but hot chile laced with cool cultural connections, then El Modelo Mexican Foods is that thing. It’s a place that’s symbolic of home, but not home; you can’t eat inside after all; you have use one of the picnic tables out in front or take your feast back to your own place. But completing that ritual practically guarantees that the idea of home and its myriad, comforting associations will persist as expositors of Nuevo Mexicano culture.
El Modelo Mexican Foods1715 Second Street SW(505) 242-1843Hours: Sun-Sat 7am-7pmVibe: A singular source of sustenanceAlibi Recommends: Chile spare rib plate, Mexican plate, tamales, red chile chorizo