A Cure For Anti-Cemita-ism

If you're going to be a proper hole-in-the-wall hound around these parts, the first thing you've got to learn is that a great deal of the best food in Orange County comes not from restaurants or food trucks, but rather from sandwich counters in grocery stores.

Driving home the other day, a new banner with the words cemitas poblanas jumped out at me. “Did that just say what I think it just said?” I wondered. Sure enough, there was a sign advertising cemitas poblanas, tortas de lomo and handmade quesadillas.

Upon investigation, I discovered that a grocery store stand I'd always dismissed as “probably just another wishful-thinking 'carne asada taco' place” is actually an honest-to-God Pueblan cafeteria, right in the middle of muy zacatecano Anaheim. Tacos de guisado, the first well-kept trompo of al pastor I've seen in Orange County, and a menu including the celebrated sandwich of Puebla, the cemita.

I walked up to the counter–the store is more than half restaurant–and asked, “Do you have pápalo?” Pápalo is a soapy, slightly bitter herb that is common to the cemita poblana, and a good sign of a place that takes their cemitas seriously.

No, señor,” the lady said. “Not today. Only sometimes, we didn't get any this time.” Fair enough–the herb is relatively uncommon. I ordered a cemita with beef milanesa and grabbed a Sidral Mundet out of the cooler while I watched San Luis get their soccer-playing culos handed to them on the obligatory large-screen television.

In no time whatsoever, a thin fillet–a scaloppino, if you will–of beef was seasoned, dredged, run through eggs, breaded, and dropped into a frying pan of hot oil on a stove. An enormous oblong roll, baked in-house and studded with sesame seeds, was cut in half and dropped unceremoniously on the flat-top grill to toast.

When the milanesa was done frying, it was drained, then plunked onto the bread with a fanned-out chipotle pepper and a handful of just-shredded Oaxaca cheese, the tangier, more satisfying cousin of string cheese. Half an avocado was sliced and scooped onto the sandwich, the top was put on, and it was wrapped in paper and walked over to my table.

It was a very good sandwich. The milanesa could have been just slightly less cooked, but that's a personal preference; the cheese and avocado lent richness and body to the sandwich, and the chipotle was surprisingly understated while lending a smoky heat to the sandwich, a good thing. I did miss the pápalo, but it is still a sandwich worth ordering, especially for its price tag (under $6).

I've got to learn to stop making assumptions about grocery stores and just try them. Now my problem is this: both these cemitas and the entraña sandwiches at El Gaucho #2 next door are three minutes' bike ride from my house. Choosing will be difficult.

Taquería La Poblanita, inside El Camino Real Market, 855 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim; (714) 520-9481.

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