Indulge me for one more column, gentle readers, in my local culinary dreams. We talked about the fulfillment of my zacatecano and Colombian dinner desires last week; now, let me rant about the curious lack of a stable cemita poblana culture in la naranja. Calling this meal a sandwich is like calling a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado a car: A proper cemita poblana, fat and toasted and constructed from the right ingredients, stands at the top of Mexico’s hoagies, a magnificent fugue of flavors.
Orange County should swim in them, due to our large expat community from the cemita’s home state of Puebla—but we don’t. The two loncheras that served them didn’t last more than a year (and one, I’m embarrassed to say, couldn’t even stay open the week after I reviewed it). The demand is here—more than a few Mexican restaurants claim to sell the sandwich, but they’re offensive imitations that nevertheless sell well. And that’s what I thought La Cemita Poblana offered when I saw the owners put up the marquee. The space, right on Main Street in Santa Ana and in the parking lot of the great Sinaloan seafood bar Mariscos la Sirena, has seen at least three separate restaurant incarnations in the past calendar year alone. No way restaurateurs would spend a personal fortune trying to exist on selling this star-crossed delicacy—and do it well?
Thankfully, I was wrong. This is a puro poblano restaurant—an almost-all-cemitas menu save for token burritos and tacos to placate the pocho crowd. The soundtrack isn’t the retina-detaching booms of banda, but rather the suave sounds of sonidero, the DJ-driven culture of endless cumbias. The either/or question here isn’t flour or corn, but rather the toppings in the cemita: jalapeño or chipotle? Milky quesillo or firm panela? If you ask if the owners have pápalo, the foil-tasting herb that completes the combo, they will matter-of-factly state it won’t be offered until spring, when the herb is in season. The imitators? Blank stares.
As for the actual cemitas: massive sesame-seed bun—not some hamburger-bread baloney, but marbled and dense, almost like a challah. Light spread of refried beans on the top slice, quesillo on the bottom. Avocado. Your choice of meat. The aforementioned cheeses (order both) and peppers (order both, and note the contrast between the pickled jalapeño and the true, unmitigated smokiness of chipotle). Small molcajetes of pickled radish slices and a furious green salsa accompany each sit-down order. The sandwich is mashed so it won’t disintegrate. Almost as big as two quarter-pounders. Toasty. Sweet. Spicy. Cheesy. The Bach of breadstuff. Support county cemita culture, and order it weekly.
La Cemita Poblana, 519 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 664-0892.
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This column appeared in print as "Gimme Some Cemita."