"Have you seen this cemita? Please help."
A cemita is a sandwich, and a very good one, when done well; it's from the state of Puebla, Mexico. I have eaten great cemitas in my lifetime (in Mexico as well as Queens), but when it came down to finding one this week for this post, I had some trouble.
There are a few things that make a cemita a unique sandwich, and different from its cousin the torta. Firstly, and most important, is the bread. A cemita is supposed to be served on a dark brown, semi-sweet, sesame-seeded flat bun. It should be soft and supple, but hearty enough to not fall apart from the heavy interior layers: refried beans, avocado slices, meat (milanesa de res o pollo, thin pounded and breaded beef or chicken, is preferable) whole chipotle peppers, papalo (a pungent herb that looks like watercress and tastes like cilantro and mint with bite) and lots and lots of quesillo (a stringy, mozzarella-type) cheese. Tomatoes, lettuce and onions are nice additions to the mix.
It is a huge, messy, and enjoyable meal, and each ingredient plays off of the next in a perfect combination of flavors, textures, and temperature contrasts. I would have never imagined that Queens, home to the greatest number of Poblanos outside of Puebla, would not have that perfect specimen of a cemita. It must be out there, but I haven't found it yet. What I did find were some good cemitas, some with great components, but not one that had every ingredient and had it right. I tried six cemitas at six different places and that just was not enough.
Taqueria La Casa Del Idolo
The first stop, and home base to taco trucks that travel to Manhattan daily. There were many good things about this cemita. They piled on as much cheese as the sandwich could possibly hold. A good amount of ripe avocado, lots of smoky heat from chipotle, a few tomato slices, a few white onions slices, two whole pieces of chicken (I ordered milanesa de pollo everywhere) and the best and most interesting variation—a slice of swiss cheese placed between the two chicken breasts that melted and oozed from the middle. It had the makings of greatness, but for two small details: no papalo, and the bread was stale. I was either too early or too late for the fresh bread delivery, and that made me sad for what could have been.
Highlights: Lots of quesillo cheese, secret swiss cheese pocket.
91-07 Corona Avenue, Elmhurst (map)
Mi Bella Puebla II
If Puebla is somehow mentioned in the name of the restaurant, it's a good sign for cemitas. I had high hopes for the next stop, especially after being slightly disappointed by the bread at El Idolo. And the bread at Mi Bella Puebla was much softer. I could smell the papalo when I unwrapped the sandwich, so we were off to a good start. The chicken was breaded with herbed crumbs, giving it a nice flavor, there were some onion slices, some tomatoes, less cheese, more avocado.
Every bite was pleasant, and the best part of this sandwich was how the adobo from the chipotle oozed into the crevices of the cheese, forming a spicy, smoky, creamy, milky layer. It was a finely formed sandwich, and a good one, with all of the right ingredients—but something was still missing to push it from good to great.
Highlights: Chipotle-cheese combo, herbed breadcrumbs.
78-02 Woodside Avenue, Elmhurst (map)
This is the Coatzingo on 82nd Street, not the one on Roosevelt Avenue, which comes later. Coatzingo is a town in Puebla, so that's a plus. The cemita here was made well. The softest bun yet, very thinly pounded chicken, a bit of papalo, some red onions, a smear of beans, a dab of mayo, melted cheese, avocado, tomato, a whole chipotle chile in each half, and a thick layer of crisp iceberg lettuce. The crunch of the lettuce with the softness of the bread, the snap of the string cheese, and the almost chewy chicken made for great bites. Another good sandwich, so why was I still unsatisfied?
Highlights: Crisp lettuce layer, soft bun.
40-18 82nd Street, Jackson Heights (map)
Cemitas Los Girasoles
In my search for cemitas I came across this place, and with cemita in the name, how could I go wrong? When I got there and saw that the cemita part had been painted over, I probably should have taken the hint, but I was there, so I went in. When I unwrapped the sandwich I discovered that not only was the bread stale, so stale that it made the bread at El Idolo seem fresh, but it wasn't even a cemita bun, it was a regular hero roll. There was so much mayonnaise spilling out (I guess they knew how dry it was) that I was immediately turned off. Some chicken, some chipotle, avocado and some lettuce, and that was it. I hate to be harsh, but I didn't see much point in even tasting the sandwich. I had a bit of chicken (which was not bad, I'll admit) but it was enough. It would have been much better had they told me that they were out of cemitas for the day, and I might have gone back another time.
Highlights: It made the other sandwiches look better.
Price: $6.95 (the most expensive!)
47-55 47th Street, Sunnyside (map)
El Poblano Restaurant
I ended up here after the sadness of the previous sandwich. Although I had ordered milanesa de pollo, what I somehow ended up getting was milanesa de res. The crust on the meat was miraculously still crisp, which was a pleasant surprise. The bread was good, a real cemita bun, not too hard, not too soft, and there were all the usual suspects: white onion slices, avocado, tomato, cheese (not enough), beans, and chipotle. There was no papalo. Another acceptable sandwich with a little something missing.
Highlights: Meat with a great crust.
75-13 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights(map)
I decided to go to this Coatzingo after having not eaten the sandwich from Girasoles, to make it a total of five eaten, and because I was nervous that I might be missing something from this crowd favorite. The bun here was the best of the bunch. Soft, flavorful, fresh, and I wouldn't expect any less since Coatzingo Bakery is only a few doors down. There were a few other great things about this sandwich. Not just one but two thick slabs of chicken surrounded a thick layer of red onions, and a good amount of lettuce, tomato, and avocado. There was a smear of beans and a handful of cheese on the bottom of the bun.
But then they had to ruin a good thing. I got through half of the sandwich before I found one tiny chipotle pepper on the other side. And there was no papalo. Why, Coatzingo? It could've been beautiful.
Highlights: Best cemita bun, good fillings.
76-05 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights (map)
What's Out There?
There is much more of Queens to explore before I can say that I have exhausted every cemita possibility. I haven't even hit Corona yet. But my stomach can only take so much sandwich in one week. For those of you who would suggest Tia Julia's, the storefront has been closed and the truck was not out the day that I needed it most. So I can't say that I have a favorite or that there's a winner this week.
If I could take the bun from Coatzingo on 76th, the milanesa crust from El Poblano, the heaping cheese from El Idolo, the lettuce from Coatzingo 82, and the chipotle and papalo amounts from Mi Bella Puebla, I might just have the perfect sandwich. Have you seen this cemita? Please help.