James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Great Sandwich is the Best Friend You’ll Ever Make

A Great Sandwich is the Best Friend You’ll Ever Make

Cemita Poblana in Puebla, Mexico

We’d traveled to Puebla to partake of the mole poblano, and to gorge on freshly pressed corn tortillas filled with wondrous local goodies (huitlacoche, anyone?). We’d traveled to Puebla to try the chiles en nogada: stuffed poblano peppers bathed in a perversely delicious walnut cream sauce. We hadn’t come to Puebla for a sandwich.

La cemita poblana. Few sandwiches have been so indelibly burned into my culinary consciousness. A breaded meat cutlet, generally pork or chicken, on a sesame-speckled, brioche-like bun (also called cemita), covered with a variety of rich flavors: ripe avocado slices, stringy queso oaxaca, chipotles in adobo and a generous handful of papalo, a cilantro-like herb popular in Mexican cuisine.

It is not the prettiest of sandwiches. The cutlet and string cheese spill from each side of the bun in an unseemly fashion. Adobo sauce drips from unseen crevices. The challenge of taking the first bite weeds out the eaters who are less than fully committed. Only the resolute persevere. But with great risk comes great return. The crisp breading of the cutlet is offset by the soft stringiness of the cheese. Smoky adobo contrasts ever so deliciously with the richness of the avocado. With each successive bite, the combination of flavors and textures varies dramatically.

The annals of culinary history hold no shortage of great sandwiches. Take a few minutes online and you can easily find countless disparate ideas of what constitutes the best sandwich. Is it the simple and unctuous crunch of high quality jamón ibérico laid bare on a freshly baked baguette? Or is it something more complex—something that marries contrasting flavors in an unexpected ceremony of sheer pleasure? Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is true with my new (and lasting) friend, la cemita poblana.

Should you find yourself in Puebla, Mexico, do yourself a favor. Ask a local where they procure their favorite cemita (they will most certainly have a favorite). Go there. Order one with everything. Say thank you. Take it outside and sit on the sidewalk. Lift your head a bit to feel the sun on your face. Take a bite, close your eyes. Did I mention you’re not going to want to share?

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