Leave the Taco, Take the Cemita: Why NYC's Tortas Beat its Tortillas Every Time

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A chicken milanesa cemita on Tulcingo Bakery's bread. [Photographs: Craig Cavallo]

Look at all the ink spilled about Mexican food in the past couple years and you'll see, above all else, two big stars: tacos and the tortillas that are used to make them. But we rarely discuss the country's traditional breads; Rene Redzepi didn't travel to Mexico to eat sandwiches.

Maybe it's an age thing. Tortillas have been a Mexican foodstuff for thousands of years. Pan tradicional is a 150-year-old custom. While sweet pan dulce dates back to the 16th century, it wasn't until the mid-19th century, with French influences during the second Franco-Mexican War, that Mexican bread took a savory turn. The French were defeated in that war (giving Mexico Cinco de Mayo), but they left a bounty of bakeries in their wake, and a deep cultural appreciation for bread-baking.

Those techniques began to surface in New York City in the 1980s, when large waves of immigrants began settling here from Mexico, largely from Puebla. Of course we got tacos. But we also got tortas. Pambazos. Cemitas. And if you're looking for a good, inexpensive Mexican meal in New York, those are what you should be eating. At your average New York taqueria, the sandwiches are almost always better than the tacos.

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Don Pepe's al pastor torta.

The reason is simple. Unlike in Mexico (not to mention LA, San Francisco, and Chicago), New York lacks a quality tortilla industry. The corn isn't the same. The nixtamalization process, which breaks down the gluey hemicellulose in corn, is different here, and the common practice in Mexico of using a natural alkaline called tequesquite, isn't a thing here. Our local factories use bland, powdery Maseca masa to make generally doughy, tasteless tortillas. Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona is the city's sole exception; they nixtamalize fresh masa from dried corn kernels. But the tortilleria likely isn't supplying your neighborhood taco joint. And while a couple swanky taco spots are getting in on the nixtamalization game, it's doubtful they'll have a wider impact on the city's core Mexican offerings.

Meanwhile, our panaderĂ­as and Mexican bakeries make some great bread; fluffy, crackly, flavorful stuff designed to encase half a dozen fillings beyond the taco's minimalist tortilla formula. With a taco, flaws have nowhere to hide. Mexican sandwiches are more forgiving.

With a taco, all it takes is some poor butchering, lackluster seasoning, or careless cooking to ruin the dish. Add in an undercooked, subpar tortilla and that $2.50 turns into an easily forgettable snack. On the other hand, your typical New York torta or cemita comes filled with as many as 10 ingredients, most of which are added raw. As long as your jalapeno, avocado, quesillo de Oaxaca, and tomato are fresh, and the bread is exceptional, the result is likely to be a at least a pleasurable one. These sandwiches strike salty, sweet, spicy, and smoky chords, and since they're usually pressed and toasted, the crusty roll condenses into a simultaneously crisp and chewy casing as the ingredients within smash into one another. Part of the torta's greatness is the homogeneity; when built right, each bite has every ingredient.

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Tulcingo Bakery.

Teleras, the rolls used to make tortas, take hours to produce. The recipe is a simple one: flour, water, salt, yeast, and sugar. But the techniques involved are stricter and more complicated than those in tortilla-making, and telera have nuances that most tortillas lack. The dough is soft, but not as chewy as a baguettes, with a thinner exterior that doesn't require a biting battle. The same can be said for cemita, a Pueblan roll that lends its name to the state's signature overstuffed sandwich. Cemitas (the rolls) are fortified with egg and made using less water, so the dough is richer and chewier. That makes cemitas (the sandwiches) all the more hefty; the bread needs to support plenty of weight. In either case, there's an exactness to baking that takes a lifetime to master.

"What makes teleras and cemitas different from other breads," Miguel Lopez told me, "is how much time you give the bread to ferment." Lopez is a third-generation baker at Don Paco Lopez in Sunset Park, which supplies bread to a few local restuarants and has become a neighborhood instituion since Miguel's father opened it in 1991. "If you over-ferment the telera," Lopez says, "they are going to taste sour. You have to make sure that the texture is right, but that depends on the weather. The dough has to double," he added. "You have to touch it to find out how much more time it needs, or if it's gone too far."

What Don Paco Lopez is in Brooklyn, Tulcingo Bakery is in Queens and the Bronx. In addition to savory staples like bolillos (another pan tradicional of Mexico used to make sandwiches—think miniature baguette), teleras, and cemitas, Tulcingo churns out over 50 varieties of pan dulces on a daily basis.

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Up in Yonkers, Julie's Bakery on McLean Avenue provides a number of Bronx Mexican restaurants with bread, including the commendable Taqueria Tlaxcalli and OK Mr. Poncho. Their cemitas are wonderfully rich but not heavy; the buns have character that stand up well to layers of beans, fried meat, cheese, and spicy condiments. Chavela's, a popular Mexican haunt in Brooklyn, calls on La Flor Bakery in Sunset Park. Try La Flor's breakfast ham and egg sandwich; the bread is substantial but plush and pillowy, more gentle and egg-friendly than even a kaiser roll.

In Manhattan, many East Harlem residents rely on Vallecito on East 110th Street. Galdino Molinero uses Vallecito's teleras, too. His Tortas Neza truck is parked in Corona, Queens, on the corner of 111th and Roosevelt, where he serves what may be the city's heftiest, meatiest sandwiches outside Carnegie Deli. And Don Pepe's in Sunset Park may be the city's torta mecca, but they call on Hermanos Bakery in New Jersey to outfit their 40-plus torta options.

The pan tradicional game is big enough that even some of the city's old-school (and non-Mexican) bakeries have taken notice. Orwasher's on East 78th Street has been serving the city for nearly 100 years. Terrence Geary currently handles operations there, including the bakery's Mexican breads. "We solidified some of the traditional recipes and then sought ways to speak to a broader audience," he told me of the cemitas the bakery started making in 2007. Cascabel Taqueria, three blocks north of Orwasher's, is a newer client.

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Tom Cat's sandwich bread.

The restaurant "was looking for something slightly moist and slightly sweet, but able to stand up to their slow-roasted pork." Which is no easy feat. That pork is laden with avocado, mango, cheese, garlic, and papalo, the traditional herb served in cemitas. It is a hefty, juicy beast of a sandwich. "The best fit was a roll we had been making for a number of restaurants around town," Geary said. "It's a straightforward dough; flour, water, salt, and yeast, with a small amount of egg, sugar, and fat to round it out." Once baked, the cemita is left with a porous, airy crumb, to which every last bit of pork juice in Cascabel's Poblano Cemita disappears.

Tom Cat Bakery opened in Long Island City in 1987. I asked Vice President James Rath about the telera and bolillo that are both now part of the bakery's roster. "We have been making them for the last 15 years," he said, "primarily driven by chefs wanting to have this style of sandwich on their menu." Not including the preferment, "the entire process takes six to seven hours," Rath says.

"The main difference between the two products is in the formulation," he added. "The bolillos are more on the lean and slightly crispy side, and the telera is formulated with milk, sugar, butter, and eggs, so it is a softer, richer dough. The shapes, weights, and oven they are baked in are also different," he said. "So the final product characteristics are different. Although both are used to make great sandwiches."

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We take the good with the bad in New York. Not all tortas and cemitas are created equal. Not all panaderias churn out exemplary teleras and cemitas. But the ones that do do so consistently, and the sandwiches made from them are some of the city's finest reflections of Mexican cooking. (And ten ingredients showcase a pantry better than a taco's two or three.)

The intrigue lies in timing, and since these are sandwiches, you're best off eating them at high noon, when the rolls haven't quite cooled to room temp and they still have a lingering bit of tang from fermenting while the city was still asleep.