When it comes to sandwiches, we tend to think, well, more is more. We’re talking about All-American Submarines, piled high with cold cuts, mayo and extra cheese, or sloppy Italian Heroes, heavy with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and juicy meatballs. But as far as gloriously outsized sandwiches are concerned, the Mexican Cemita just may top them all. A popular street food in Puebla, Mexico, Cemitas are comprised of up to ten layers of meat, cheese, and other assorted goodies, all stuffed into an eggy, slightly sweet, sesame-seeded bun. Each sandwich centers around a protein, like Breaded Chicken Cutlets, Beef Patties, or Pork Carnitas, although adventurous eaters might prefer Goat, Tongue, or even Nopales – tender, cooked Cactus Paddles.
Instead of just humdrum Lettuce and Tomato, Cemitas are generally layered with a savory combo of Refried Beans and buttery, mashed Avocado. And forget about Cheddar Cheese or orange squares of American… no Cemita is complete without a handful of shredded Quesillo, a milky, Oaxacan String Cheese. Looking for a little extra heat between the bread? Chipotle Chiles in Adobo Sauce ( a dark red sauce of chile peppers, garlic, vinegar and often tomato) are a standard topping for authentic, Mexican Cemitas. And every tried-and-true Cemita is strewn with Papalo, a verdant South American herb. Like a cross between Arugula and Cilantro, it’s what gives this unique Pueblan specialty its singular kick.
From “hole in the wall” eateries in Queens to pop-up stands in Brooklyn, and sit-down restaurants on the Upper East Side, there are plenty of places to sink your teeth into a tasty, Mexican sub of sorts. But you might just want to bring along an extra shirt… because when it comes to eating Cemitas, getting down and dirty is obligatory.
The Best Mexican Sandwiches in The City
El Idolo Taco Truck
Even in the middle of winter, there’s a line snaking down the street that starts in front of El Idolo, a popular Mexican food truck that roams the boroughs. Each day, the truck makes its pilgrimage from Queens to the West Village, peddling dishes like Tostadas, Huaraches, and Soft Tacos with Roast Pork, Spicy Chicken, Beef Tongue, or Chorizo. But it’s the overstuffed Cemitas we get in line for. All kinds of meats are available, including Tongue and Goat, although the Chicken is surprisingly juicy and a good bet for the more conservative sandwich type. One of the things that sets El Idolo apart is the the addition of whole Chipotle Chilies, which add tingle to generous layers of Beans and Avocado. It’s cheap, quick, and most importantly, delicious.
Famous for its Indian restaurants, Jackson Heights also happens to boast some of our city’s best Mexican food. The Cemitas at Coatzingo are about as close as you can get to the ones in Puebla, at least without airfare. They come in all sorts of varieties, including the standard Milanesa de Pollo (pounded and fried chicken) or Milanesa de Res (cutlets of beef.) But there’s also Chorizo on the menu, and Nopales by request, both of which are worth adding to your sandwich. One distinguishing factor is that the owners of Coatzingo also have a Panaderia (bakery) a few doors down, so the bread is always super fresh because it’s made daily. Boisterous families and a salsa soundtrack only add to the vibe of this shop, but if you want a bit more quiet, there’s a lesser-known outpost a few blocks up Roosevelt Avenue, on 82nd street.
Located in the Williamsburg Savings Bank, the hipster haven Brooklyn Flea seems like an improbable place to find real deal Cemitas. Besides, a good three quarters of the market is devoted to artisans selling vintage t-shirts and shabby-chic lamps made out of reclaimed stereos. But despite a few gourmet flourishes, like House-Pickled Onions and Homemade Chipotle Aioli (this is Williamsburg, after all), the sandwiches at Cemita’s are surprisingly authentic. It helps that owner Danny Lyu hired Pueblan chefs and keeps a steady supply of Papalo on hand, a huge advantage in our opinion. You can find the herb in Lyu’s over the top ten-layer Cemita, which includes Bean Spread, Mayo, Lettuce, Onions, Tomato, Avocado, Oaxaca Cheese, Chipotle, and depending on the day, options include Lengua, Carnitas, or Panko-crusted Fried Chicken. Legit!
Although this Astoria dive is also referred to as Athens Grill, rest assured there’s no Greek influence in their entirely traditional Cemitas. Look for Milanesa de Pollo, thinly pounded chicken cutlets, which are a lighter, far less messy alternative to braised meats, like Carnitas. Of course, the juicy nuggets of fatty pork are incredibly tasty, too. Avocado and saucy beans are applied with a restrained hand, along with a vegetal crunch of lettuce, tomato, and raw onion. While ostensibly a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, the small dining area at Athens Grill is actually quite cozy, clean, and a touch funky. Green copper lizards and frogs trim the walls, and two large religious monuments are strewn with multi-colored Christmas lights, and topped with an offering box stuffed with dollar bills. Soccer is always on, so stop by to watch a game. With a Cemita in hand, you’ll really feel like a local.
In the mood for a fancy pants Cemita? While it’s not exactly traditional, the upscale version at Cascabel Taqueria on the Upper East Side is terrific and worth a detour from the down and dirty version. It’s made with Braised Berkshire Pork Butt, chunks of Champagne-Soaked Mango, Queso Fresco, a thin layer of Avocado, and a delicate smear of Aioli. Unfortunately, the tumble of greens inside the sandwich is, in fact, Cilantro, and not the preferred Papalo, but considering how hard the herb is to find during winter, we’ll give Cascabel a pass for now. Especially since it’s one of the few Cemita spots where you can indulge in a cocktail as well. After you grab a margarita from the bar, settle in at one of the tables in back… you’ll need plenty of elbow room in order to tackle this monstrous Cemita. There’s a reason it’s served with a steak knife through the middle, after all.
When it comes to sandwiches, we tend to think, well, more is more. We’re talking about All-American Submarines, piled high with cold cuts, mayo and extra cheese, or sloppy Italian Heroes, heavy...
Any roundup of Mexican food has to head to Sunset Park, one of the newest frontiers for Latin immigrants. The neighborhood is home to a slew of authentic comidas, or kitchens, including El Comal.
The restaurant’s encyclopedic menu includes greatest hits from across Mexico and Central America, and they’re known for their pupusas: an El Salvodorean masa specialty. That said, their version of the sandwich du jour is also worthy of a long subway ride. El Comal’s
Milanesa de Pollo Cemita is a delicacy. The homey cutlet, pounded into an irregular shape, is faintly sweet and delicately breaded. It comes on a particularly dense roll with traditional trimmings of avocado, fresh cheese, and chipotle in adobo, the tingly chili compote that adds zing to our favorite Cemitas. Order your head-size sandwich at the open kitchen and enjoy in minimalist dining room. Or, take it “to go” as part of a Sunset Park street-food crawl.