South of the Border

By Mauricio Velázquez de Leon

Published on March 18, 2011

When I was growing up in Mexico City, Sundays were devoted to two things: food and futbol. Some Sundays, my parents' appetite would lead us as far away as Puebla, 80 miles to the east. Puebla is the country's fourth-largest city and the source of some of its most famous dishes, and the Velazquez de Leon troupe was happy to try everything. Or, I should say, almost everything. One local specialty my family always passed on was the cemita poblana, the queen of tortas (sandwiches). I suppose we were acting out a provincial feud. As Chilangos (people from Mexico City), we were happy to accept that Puebla has superb food, but tortas are a Mexico City thing. Would a New Yorker drive to Boston for a bagel?

Years later, my work often took me to Puebla, and the Mercado del Carmen became a favorite stop. Locals will tell you that the Mercado, one of the city's traditional markets, is the place for cemitas; if I was going to cheat on the tortas of my youth, I was determined to do it with the best. The distinguishing characteristic of the cemita is the bread it's served on: a fluffy egg roll topped with sesame seeds. The sandwich is filled with sliced avocado, queso blanco (soft white cheese), raw onions, chipotle chiles, and some kind of meat—typically ham, chicken, pierna en adobo (roast pork leg marinated in red chile sauce), head-cheese, or milanesa (thin, breaded veal cutlets). Another key element that sets the cemita apart from other tortas is a handful of fresh papalo, a pungent herb that adds a peppery bite.

I still remember my first cemita with milanesa at a food stall in the Mercado del Carmen. The lukewarm meat and crunchy breading worked beautifully against the fluffy roll and buttery avocado. Salty queso blanco and smoky chipotle added intensity, and the papalo rounded everything out with its cilantro-like zing. From that moment forward, my allegiance would forever be divided when it came to sandwiches. —Mauricio Velazquez de Leon, author of _My Foodie ABC: A Little Gourmet's Guide _(duopress, 2010)

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