Monday Munchies: Cemita > Torta.

The cemita. Photo by Jefferson VanBilliard

Last week, I was in East Los Angeles prepping CBD-infused mocktails for a large cannabis event, and I found myself with a couple of extra hours to spare. LA in the middle of the summer can be almost unbearable because of the heat, traffic and smells that seem to grow stronger on each block, but I wandered about until I came upon a sandwich that changed my life not once, but twice. The story of my relationship with the cemita is one of both courage and defeat, told through the perspective of a young man just trying his best.

At first glance, you may be saying to yourself, “Jefferson, what’s so special about this sandwich? It’s basically a torta.” Ah, but that would be as basic as ordering a pumpkin latte. For starters, the cemita doesn’t have any identity issues; since its inception in the region of Puebla, Mexico, no matter where you go, the cemita is served the same.

The torta is more of the hipster type and has a wide variety of meanings depending upon which continent you happen to be on. The cemita has a much more restrictive recipe that ditches the beans, mayonnaise and lettuce the torta lazily relies on to carry the heavy lifting, leaving a much cleaner combination of avocado, meat, queso oaxaca and chipotle peppers. Finally, the bread on a cemita is more akin to a brioche bun with sesame seeds rather than the firm, white bread you will get when ordering a torta.

Basically, the cemita is superior in every way when comparing the two sandwiches using my personal list of “Jefferson’s yummy must- haves.” While I ate my new favorite lunchtime meal, I realized I had experienced the wonder of the cemita before, but the day was so traumatic I had stuffed the memory of it deep into my cerebellum using distraction, liquor and denial. That is, until this sandwich brought the memories rushing to the surface.

It was a couple of years ago, and my friend Eduardo was about to have his birthday. Me, being the handsome, generous friend that I am, decided that the only logical thing to do for his upcoming festivities was to get him out of Orange County for a few days to explore his favorite city in the entire world, Barcelona. But since being handsome doesn’t necessarily pay my bills, I could only afford to take him to Tijuana. So, with our pockets full of Yankee dollars and dreams of making it big, we set out to walk, drink and eat our way around the city while hopefully making a few lasting memories.

Unfortunately, the night before our big trip, we decided to indulge in a large bottle of tequila that left me feeling a little shakier and worse for the wear the morning after. As our train steadily made its way toward its destination, I sat facing backward and slowly discovering I had made a huge mistake. Not only was I falling into the worst hangover I could remember at the time, but I was experiencing it in a place full of smells that were sure to send me spiraling toward the nearest restroom.

After enough trips to the bathroom to make a coke addict blush, I realized that my travel partner was none the wiser about my current condition, and I was ready to keep it that way for as long as possible. As we made our way along the dusty path toward Revolución Boulevard, we [Ed] decided to stop at every bar we could find and order rounds of nausea brought on by tequila. For the rest of the day, we operated like clockwork. And after each shot, I would excuse myself to el baño, we would leave, and I would start the process over again. It wasn’t ideal by any means, but it was Ed’s birthday, and I wasn’t going to let him down.

Once we had exhausted ourselves from our liquor-fueled romp through the tourist section of TJ, Ed determined we needed some food to soak up the booze. I was still doing my best to soldier on, and he was still oblivious to my oblivion. As he led me off the main strip and down a series of one-way streets, I could feel the familiar tug from the depths of my stomach telling me it was time for another one of our secret meetings. However, I ignored it and tried to breathe out of my mouth as much as possible. When we arrived at our destination, I was greeted with the smell of deep-fried steaks and the faint oder of urine, an interesting combination that can prove fatal if you happen to be nursing a hangover.

I bit into that sandwich as if it owed me money. I don’t know why I chose to attack that meal with such confidence, but rest assured, it faded quickly. I stood there, trying to swallow a mouthful of regret while beads of sweat formed across my shoulders and neck. I looked at my friend with eyes as wide as the busy city streets and finally broke down.

“Ed, I think I might throw up,” I said, knowing damn well it was inevitable. He pointed in a direction behind him and told me to be careful as I trotted away from him to do my dirty deed. After what seemed like miles, I found a spot between two parked cars to dispel the contents of my stomach. I’m not sure if you’ve ever vomited while hunched over the sidewalk, but something very interesting happens to your body during this process. From my toes to the tips of my hair, every muscle in my body decided at once to disappoint me. As I emptied whatever was left in my gut, I did something I hadn’t done since I was a baby.

Happy place. Courtesy of Jefferson VanBilliard

I pooped my pants.

Pooping your pants in any city is about as fun as spending the day at the Department of Motor Vehicles, but Tijuana has to be one of the worst places by far to experience that kind of horror. There are no bathrooms, and if you are lucky enough to find one, it’s going to make you rethink every decision you’ve made leading up to that moment.

I slowly made my way back to Eduardo and tried my best to act cool. “I’ll be back; I need a Gatorade,” I said as I studied the storefronts nearby for a welcoming place to try to wash up. The only open shop was Mexico’s version of a 7-Eleven, called OXXO, and they are just as weird as any other convenience store I’ve encountered when you ask in broken Spanish if you can use the facilities. Luckily, Jesus himself must have taken pity on me because the guy behind the counter agreed to let me use the employee restroom after I slid the guy a $5 bill.

The rest of that day was a blur of tequila shots, depression and motion sickness, but in the end, Ed had a great time, and I was able to keep my summer physique thanks to throwing up most of the water inside my body. I never told Ed about what happened that day, and I’m hoping he’s a bad friend who doesn’t read my articles so it can stay that way.

I’m glad I got a second chance at trying out the torta’s more delicious cousin, the cemita. And if you ever find yourself in East LA, check out La China Poblana for its take on Mexico’s greatest sandwich. Just make sure you skip the tequila for some buds and always have an escape plan if you’re feeling nauseated. Happy smoking!

La China Poblana, 3568 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 263-8310.

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