Mexican Eats: East Harlem's Cafe Ollin Serves a Singular Cemita

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[Photographs: Scarlett Lindeman]

A cemita sandwich, a beloved construction of Puebla, Mexico, is meant to be laughably large. The slightly sweet, sesame seed bun has the circumference of a salad plate. The pillowy innards are squashed down to form a crater deep enough to hold all of the fillings: meats, chipotle peppers, onion, avocado, herbaceous papalo, and enough footage of stringy Oaxacan cheese to knit a man's sweater. If you're not bowled over by the sight of your sandwich, then it's not a proper cemita.

Cafe Ollin, a pleasant taqueria in East Harlem that has richly painted walls with dangling green foliage from well-tended potted plants, offers cemitas ($8) with correct proportions. The bun, is one of the best in the city: fresh, rich, and buttery, crispy yet yielding, a perfect holding-pen of starch in which to layer fried cutlets of beef and absurd amounts of cheese. Though it's missing the papalo, it's an impressive bite that takes two people to tackle. The Juancho version ($10) features a delectable hash of sorts: sliced potatoes, fingers of cactus, jalapenos, onions, and a choice of meat (chorizo is ideal here) griddled into a crispy, flavorful melange, and then tucked into the cemita.

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The other menu options lack heft and finesse: bland quesadillas with cold, rubbery cheese ($7.50); gorditas saturated with grease ($3.50), and tacos ($2.25) so dry that the second tortilla can be left on the plate as an unnecessary wrapping. The house salsas are nice, the avocado is generously portioned, and some swear by the vegetarian burritos ($8), which bulge with black beans, rice, and more avocado, but only the cemitas are singularly delicious. Go big here or go home.

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Cafe Ollin

339 East 108th Street New York, NY 10029 (map)
212-828-3644
cafeollin.com

About the author: Scarlett Lindeman is a cook, food-writer, and recipe editor of Diner Journal, a food/arts quarterly. E-mail her at scarlett.lindeman@gmail.com.

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