Have you ever fallen in love, only to realize you'd fallen for an impostor? I have, and this is my story.
Starting last year, when I moved to Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, I'd sometimes stop at the taco trucks along Roosevelt Avenue for some late-night food. It didn't take me long to quit the tacos and zero in on the cemita sandwiches instead. I got hooked on them, hard—as far as I was concerned, the cemita was perhaps the greatest sandwich ever created.
I loved everything about it. The tender toasted sesame-seed bun. The taco fillings like lengua, carnitas, and carne asada. The heaps of shredded queso Oaxaca, partly melted from the warm meat filling. The smoky chipotles and intense pop of the Mexican herb called papalo. The thick layer of avocado. The juicy slices of tomato, crisp iceberg lettuce, and plenty of mayo.
I loved it so much that last year, while in Mexico City, I took a two-and-a-half hour bus ride to Puebla, just to eat the cemitas in their city of origin. And there I discovered that the cemita I thought I knew wasn't really a cemita, at least not by Mexican standards.
The Pueblan cemitas I ate were mostly cold sandwiches, with un-toasted bread and no lettuce or tomato to speak of. The fillings were more limited, mostly fried meat cutlets, cold cuts, or gelatinous cubes of cow's foot. I liked them, a lot actually. But I also have to admit that I was a little disappointed at first because they just weren't what I was expecting. I was also confused—the cemita I was so passionate about had been unmasked. Was it even a cemita at all? Had I invested all my emotions in a fake?
If this story were a romantic comedy, this would be the moment of conflict, the couple in crisis about to walk away from each other forever. I thought I knew you, I cry to the New York City cemita, greasy, chipotle-stained tears streaking my face. Who are you anyway? The cemita looks at me, stone-faced, and shrugs.
It wasn't the last shrug I'd get. As I walked up and down Roosevelt Avenue once back in New York, I'd stop at taco trucks and restaurants, often run and staffed by the City's large Pueblan population, and ask for an explanation.
"I've noticed the cemita here is different from the ones in Puebla," I'd say.
"Oh, yes," cooks and servers would respond, many of them from Puebla itself.
"Do you know why?"
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"Food evolves when it leaves its native country," she reminded me. "People come here and create the best approximation of what they're used to at home. And maybe once they're here in the U.S., they feel a little more open to bending the rules."
For Tellez, who developed her appreciation for cemitas in Puebla and returns there often enough to satisfy her cravings, the New York variety is of limited interest. According to her, the bread, also known as a cemita even when plain, is just not the same. "In Puebla, the bread has a crunchy exterior, a soft interior, and is slightly sweet," she explains. "Whereas the cemita rolls here in New York tend to be like regular American rolls with sesame seeds on top—it's an afterthought."
She's also down on the queso Oaxaca we get here. "The quesillo quality in the U.S. is substandard. In Puebla, you get the lactic tang of the real deal."
Our conversation was helpful, but also left me feeling even worse about the New York cemitas. The bread wasn't as good, the cheese a wan simulacrum. What had I seen in it in the first place? I went on a cemita break and stopped ordering them on my walk home from the subway late at night.
And then, like in any good romantic comedy, my time off from the New York cemita gave me a chance to reflect. I remembered the good times we had, all those sweet and tender moments. Sure, the New York cemita wasn't as sophisticated as the Pueblan one, but it had one heck of a personality. And yeah, it had some rough edges and leaned on ingredients that a proper cemita would never dream of, but it was tasty, dammit! It made me laugh, made me cry, made me feel whole.
No one's gonna tell me who to love—New York cemita, I want you back! [Roll credits.]
But the similarities to rom-coms end there, because the New York cemita and I are not in an exclusive, forever-happily-ever-after relationship. No, we have a more unorthodox thing going, because I also share my emotions and loyalty with the Pueblan cemita. That's right, I'm in an open cemita relationship, and I am not ashamed to admit it.
So, if you're still with me, I'd like to take a closer look at my two loves to discover what they have in common and what's different.
The Cemita's Many Faces
I should start with an important point: The characteristics I'm going to describe here are generalizations and, as with anything, there are exceptions to all rules. There are Pueblan cemitas with less common ingredients like refried beans, and there may well be a New York cemita without lettuce or tomato (though I have yet to see one). Still, overall, here's what all the cemitas I've found have in common, and what's different.
The Common Ground
All cemitas I've tried share a few essential ingredients. First, and perhaps most importantly, they're all served on cemitas, the sesame seed-topped buns that give the sandwiches their name. Quality differences aside between the New York and Pueblan versions of the bun, you don't have a cemita if you don't have that bun.
Next, they all have papalo, a Mexican herb with a very particular flavor. Some describe it as cilantro-like, and indeed, if you can't find papalo where you live, cilantro would be the next best choice. But cilantro alone doesn't quite capture the flavor of papalo. There's also something floral and, dare I say, even soapy about it. Serious Eats's own Vicky Wasik said it best, when she took a bite of papalo and declared that it tasted like fresh laundry. She's right, and while some may find that idea off-putting, but I absolutely love it.
Some form of jalapeño is also pretty standard. In some spots, that means chipotles, which are smoked and dried jalapeños. In others, it means pickled jalapeños. In a lot of cases, you get to choose between the two. Onion is also typical on most cemitas.
Avocado is another absolute must, and preferably plenty of it.
As mentioned above, shredded queso Oaxaca has gone into every cemita I've ever seen. It's a type of mild string cheese, and absent actual queso Oaxaca, string cheese could indeed work. In better cemita-making establishments, the cheese is shredded practically hair-thin, while lesser places do a lazier job with thicker strands; to my taste, the thinner the strings of cheese, the better the texture of the sandwich overall.
Lastly, there's the meat. All cemitas have it (excepting any vegetarian versions, of course), though the options differ significantly between New York and Puebla. One preparation that is offered in both places: milanesa, or breaded fried cutlets.
While New York and Puebla both serve cemitas on cemita rolls, the handling of the rolls is different. In New York, it's typically toasted on a griddle, and compressed with a spatula as it toasts. In Puebla, the bread I saw was fresh.
New York cemitas also tend to have a few extra ingredients, namely lettuce, tomatoes, and refried beans. "Restaurant owners in New York may think people want more of a torta experience, that they want lettuce and tomatoes," Tellez theorized when we spoke.
As for condiments, it's typical for New York cemitas to be slathered with mayo and similar creamy sauces, while Pueblan ones often just get a drizzle of olive oil.
Despite my unsuccessful attempts to find out why these differences exist, I do have a working theory. In Puebla, cemitas are a specialty food, often sold by vendors that dedicate themselves to the sandwich, allowing them to focus on it much more exclusively. In New York, on the other hand, they're typically sold at restaurants and taco trucks with full menus that go way beyond sandwiches, often late into the night.
I can just imagine the thought process of a taco truck vendor: It's midnight, the cemita rolls are stale, and there's limited space for a whole separate set of meat fillings from those used in the tacos and other dishes being served. What do you do? You toast the bun to revive it, and offer taco meats as fillings for efficiency's sake—they're there and already hot, so why not? In fact, when it comes to New York food trucks, I'd say the milanesa (breaded fried cutlets) may be the worst choice of cemita fillings. Lacking a proper deep fryer, most trucks store cold, pre-fried cutlets in the fridge and reheat them on the griddle, with absolutely terrible results. In Puebla, meanwhile, you're more likely to get freshly fried cutlets.
Can I prove this? No, but I can see how the specifics of selling cemitas in a foreign city, in different conditions and under particular constrains, could lead to the above mutations in the sandwich's form. Frankly, if the taco trucks along Roosevelt started trying to put out more traditional cemitas, it'd be a disaster, with stale bread and tough cutlets. The changes that have happened here benefit the sandwich by hiding some of its weaker elements, like lesser-quality bread and cheese, which are almost always better when toasted and melted, respectively.
I'd argue that one isn't better than the other, they're just different.
What about non-New York cemitas in the States?
Some of you may want to ask about non-New York cemitas in the United States. After all, New York isn't the only city where cemitas are sold. I can't speak from personal experience, because I've never eaten a cemita outside of New York and Mexico, but I reached out to some folks who have to get some details.
First, I spoke to the writer Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, who knows the Los Angeles Mexican food scene inside and out and has also spent plenty of time in Mexico and Puebla. "I would say that LA probably has better cemitas than NY," he told me, trying to spark a little coastal rivalry, but I didn't bite (ha! Take that, Bill! I've got enough love for two cemitas and LA too!). "We have a street in LA with five or six trucks on the block, and they're doing the traditional fillings—milanesa, pata, pierna, carne adobada—so we're pretty good. Then in the sit-down restaurants, you'll have more extended options like carne asada, which is not even carne asada because they're cooking on a flat top." According to Esparza, tomatoes and lettuce aren't common in LA, which also makes their version a little closer to the Pueblan original.
Meanwhile, Kenji reported from San Francisco. "The ones at Pueblan restaurants tend to have chipotle, avocado, milanesa, cream, usually a smear of beans, and cheese. The bread is almost always griddled. At the non-Pueblan restaurants, the bread isn't griddled, but the sandwiches usually have lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and whatever meat. Often taco meats," he told me. In effect, a big old messy mashup of styles. "But actually, now that I think about it, most restaurants, even Pueblan joints, serve tortas with cemita fillings on telera-style bread. A true cemita is a rarity."
Even in Puebla, there's no single standard. "You can find cemitas with beans in them in Puebla," Esparza told me. "You won't find them in the big sandwich shops in the city, but you get lots of different styles. I stopped for cemitas once, I forget where on the road, and they were nothing like in the city. They were smaller. There are regional things that people don't talk about a lot."
Making Your Own
Okay, so now that we've sketched the finer points of cemitas both north and south of the border, how do you make your own? No matter the type, you'll need the right kind of bread. Many Mexican bakeries sell cemita rolls, so that's the first place to start. If that's not an option, or if you want even better ones than what's sold at bakeries, you can make your own (check out Kenji's recipe here). In a pinch, you can just make a concession and use some other kind of sesame roll. Purists will say it's not a cemita, but as we've already seen, there are enough versions of cemitas out there that I don't think one more change should be an obstacle for you.
Let's break it down the rest of it.
Pueblan Cemita Step-by-Step
The exact order the ingredients are layered changes depending on who's making it, but this version here is based on a cemita I had in Puebla that was assembled with incredible care.
We start with a fresh cemita roll, and split it in half. It ends up being a very tall sandwich, so scooping out some of the bread from the top half will help keep it a little more manageable to eat.
Then we take half a ripe avocado and spread the flesh all over the bottom piece of bread.
On top of that, we set very thin freshly fried cutlets of beef, pork, or chicken; you can also use cold cuts here like ham, or boiled cow's foot, if you have that.
Next we add a healthy pile of finely shredded queso Oaxaca.
Raw onions and jalapeños go on next...
...followed by papalo leaves.
Then more cheese that's topped with a drizzle of olive oil.
Close the sandwich and voilà.
New York Cemita Step-by-Step
For a New York-style cemita, we start with that same bread, but toast it on a griddle or in a hot skillet, pressing down with a spatula to compress the bread.
Then we spread warm refrieds on the bottom bun, and top it with the meat of our choice—taco fillings are fair game here, or you can do the breaded fried cutlets again.
On top of that goes avocado, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Con todo (the works), basically.
On top of that goes papalo, chipotles in adobo or pickled jalapeños, and a heaping pile of shredded cheese.
The top bun gets slathered in mayo, and then we close the sandwich. To do it really right, either wrap it in foil to trap the heat of the ingredients and semi-melt the cheese or pop it in a 350°F oven for a few minutes to warm through.
It should be more compressed than the Pueblan one, with plenty of sauciness from the mayo.
No matter which one you make, I'm confident you'll discover a love story as beautifully unconventional as mine.