Peeling back the top of a sandwich from a Mexican bodega can sometimes cause momentary confusion. “Where’s the pickled jalapeño? What’s this green stuff?” is all too common a refrain. Here we clear up the difference between the two most popular Mexican sandwiches, the cemita and the torta, and where to find delectable versions of each.
The hulking cemita, the behemoth of all sandwiches, originated in the southern state of Puebla, Mexico. In Puebla, there are shops specializing in cemitas, restaurants that treat their sandwich-assembling as efficiently as an In-N-Out. They have guys whose sole job is to crown every sandwiches stack with a pile of hand-pulled Oaxacan string cheese, a crucial ingredient that drapes over the other layers like a fantastic ’80s hair-metal coif.
A cemita starts with a sturdy, slightly sweet, sesame-seed-studded roll. A slip of meat is added: Fried cutlets of beef or chicken are common; pata, jellied pigs’ feet, headcheese, or carnitas are a bit more adventurous. Avocado, chipotle peppers, bouncy panela cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, rings of white onion, and a splash of red chile sauce follow. Most importantly is the addition of papalo, a green herb with scalloped leaves and a soapy smell. Papalo, which comes from the Nahuatl word “papalotl,” for butterfly, is as pretty as it is pungent, with a sharp citrusy flavor that slices through the fatty layers of the sandwich. Any proper cemita should have a couple of leaves, though, as a hard-to-find ingredient, it is usually the most frequently omitted. Ask for it by name when ordering. Note: Cemitas are usually $1 more than a torta on any NYC Mexican menu. Try one at El Sol Azteca, 82-12 Roosevelt Avenue, in Jackson Heights.
In essence, a torta is a basic layered sandwich on a roll beefed up by Mexican ingredients like refried beans, pickled jalapeños, and avocado. Mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato are usually included. Meats, like taco fillings, vary and can be whatever is available, from al pastor pork to braised veal suadero to chorizo. There’s more freedom in a torta.
Superlative versions are served at Puebla Mini Mart in Sunset Park, a bodega with kitchen in back. The owner, Don Pepe, is the mastermind of this unique sandwich shop, using a technique that compresses the sandwiches like paninis, and offering 32, and counting, styles. Like a Damien Hirst installation, the tortas are sliced-down the middle and beautifully stratified with ham, cheese, avocado, onion, stewed chicken, and a shopping list of other ingredients. As overloaded as they sound, the sandwiches are as carefully crafted as those old Italian deli sandwiches where the counter guys slice the cheese to order and spend 20 minutes sprinkling oregano onto your hoagie, and … twice as tasty. Puebla Mini Mart, 3908 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-435-3326