Burger Toppings Week: Vamos a Mexico With the Cemita Burger

The cemita, the classic sandwich of Puebla, Mexico, meets an American hamburger. Vicky Wasik

Ever since moving to Jackson Heights, Queens, I've developed a craving. No, not to those dollar-a-dance "gentlemen's clubs" along Roosevelt Avenue. I've become attached to cemitas, the glorious sandwich from Puebla, Mexico. I'm pretty much convinced that it's the greatest sandwich ever created anywhere in the world. (I'm also convinced that anyone who thinks New York has no good Mexican food has failed to understand that, since the majority of Mexicans in New York come from Puebla, the food from that region should be the litmus test here, and I'm confident that one bite of a cemita will silence even the most outspoken critic.)

The beauty of the cemita is that it's so fully packed with insanely delicious toppings that it's great no matter what the meat inside is. I know this from experience: I've eaten cemitas filled with tongue, with goat, and with steak; I've eaten cemitas al pastor and cemitas with milanesa (breaded beef cutlet). They're all winners.

Which got me thinking: Why can't I put a big old juicy hamburger patty in a cemita? So...that's just what I did.

A Few Key Ingredients

Before going into the cooking and construction of my cemita, there are three things that can be a little hard to find that are needed to make an absolutely official cemita. That said, in all cases substitutions are possible.

The first is the bun, which is also called cemita in Mexico, even before it's been turned into a sandwich. A classic cemita bun, at least as I've had them here in Jackson Heights, is topped with sesame seeds and has a rich, slightly yeasty flavor. If you can find cemitas, definitely get them for this. If not, a substantial sesame-seed bun will work, as will a brioche bun.


Next, cemitas are often filled with the leaves of a Mexican herb called papalo. If you don't live near a Mexican grocery, this will be the hardest to find and replace. Papalo has a fresh, herbal pop to it (I can't go near the stuff without singing: pop-pop-pop-pop-papalo.) I tried thinking of flavor-equivalents, but I couldn't come up with any. My best suggestion is to use cilantro leaves instead, since they'll add their own fresh, mineral character, but there's no getting around it—they won't taste like papalo.

Finally, there's the cheese. Cemitas are topped with a generous layer of a shredded fresh cheese called Queso Oaxaca that's about halfway between fresh mozzarella and string cheese in character. If you can't find that, shredded mozzarella will be your best alternative.

Making the Cemita

Once you've assembled all your ingredients, here's how to make the cemitas. I started with large, 8-ounce patties for these because the cemita bun is pretty big and would easily dwarf a smaller patty. I elected to cook them in a cast iron skillet, though space can be an issue because of their size. If you have one of those two-burner cast iron griddles, this would be the time to bust it out. Otherwise, you may need to use two skillets, or work in batches. The cemitas I've eaten have always been prepared on griddles, but a grill would work, too.


After cooking the patties, I toast the buns in the leftover grease and juices. Copying what I've seen the cemita-truck cooks do in my neighborhood, I smash the buns down with a sturdy spatula to compress them. Without this compression, the sandwich would end up too tall and unruly.


I've had enough cemitas at this point to know that different cooks stack the ingredients in different orders. This just happens to be the order I chose, but feel free to switch it up if you want. I start by spreading refried beans on the bottom bun halves.


Then I spread a chipotle mayo on the top bun halves.

Cemita buns, reporting for duty!.

I scatter some shredded iceberg lettuce on the refrieds...


...and top that with some pop-pop-pop-pop-papalo!


Thinly sliced tomato goes on top of that.


And now the mammoth 8-ounce patty. Once again, this is 80-percent lean, freshly ground beef chuck, which guarantees a juicy hunk of meat.


On top of the patty go slices of ripe avocado.


Next goes the shredded Queso Oaxaca. The shredding is important: Shredded cheese has more exposed surface area, so once it's set on top of the hot hamburger patty and sealed inside the bun, the cheese starts to soften almost immediately from the radiant heat.

Um, yeah, that thing I said about health before, let's just drop that topic, okay?.

Quieres picante? That's the question my local cemita-cart vendors ask when putting my cemitas together. Si, is my answer. And then on go the hot chilies. Sometimes they're pickled jalapeños, sometimes they're chipotles. I used chipotles here.


And there you have it. Now excuse me while I go buy a cemita (you didn't expect me to write all this and not start jonesing for one, did you?)