About 15 years ago, residents from the Mexican state of Puebla looked as if they’d become SanTana’s next big Mexican community. Restaurants around town went beyond mole poblano to offer regional specialties such as tacos placeros (the original breakfast tacos—pay attention, Austinites!), tacos árabes (a mestizo take on shawerma sandwiches) and cemitas poblanas, the greatest sandwich of them all. A cemita has crunch, zing, sweetness, heat and creaminess thanks to a specific lineup: a challah-like bread, freshly fried milanesa, chipotle peppers, avocados and Oaxacan cheese. But what syncs everything is pápalo, a leafy herb that tastes like tinfoil yet has a magical, refreshing quality that makes your hefty sandwich sit light on the panza.
The poblanos never took hold like, say, michoacanos and chilangos. The food not only didn’t become a regular part of the SanTana diet, but it’s also almost completely gone from the city. That’s why I try to spend as much time as possible at Cemitas Andrea, a trailer in an industrial area of the city slated for gentrification—so visit ASAP. Its menu offers just quesadillas, cemitas, sandwiches and tostadas. But here is where you get the big, robust flavors that make poblanos renowned across Mexico and earned an eternal fan in Anthony Bourdain (he once said that his poblano line cooks and chefs over the years made “most [cooking school]-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks”). A tostada of tinga de res (beef cooked in a chipotle sauce that stings) is massive, crunchy, juicy. Even better are the quesadillas—get the one with queso de panela, which finds cubes of the moist cheese slathered in crema and salsa verde folded into a spectacular, lightly fried, handmade corn tortilla. And while pambazos are technically from Mexico City, no one complains at Andrea because the salsa-soaked thing is muy grande and muy bueno.
As for the cemitas themselves? The bread could be better, but the interplay of ingredients is perfect. Especially the milanesa, the best I’ve ever had in OC—as fluffy as tempura, as filling as a chicharrón and as endangered as the middle class. Go to Andrea’s now.
Cemitas Andrea, on the corner of Fifth and Hawley streets, Santa Ana, (714) 984-9587.