1275 S. Santa Fe Avenue, Vista
While chatting with a friend in New York recently, he told me, “I know you don’t think we have good Mexican food in the city, but I just got the best cemita in Brooklyn.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Whatever it is, I’m sure we have better.” But after I hung up the phone, I had to wonder: Do we?
Of course I couldn’t admit I didn’t know what a cemita was and that I had to learn via Google that it’s a type of torta native to the Puebla region of Mexico, named for the sesame-encrusted bun used to make it. I immediately started scouring the menus of trusted local Mexican restaurants looking for it, without luck. Finally, using every web-search trick I know, I found one place in the entire county that serves this mystery sandwich — in Vista.
Cemitas Fandanguero specializes in cemita and bakes their rolls fresh daily. They’re funny little hat-shaped things, with a slightly softer texture than the telera or bolillo rolls used to make most of the tortas I’ve eaten. Plus, sesame seeds make everything better.
A diagram on the menu explained that Cemitas’ cemitas feature a choice of meat, sliced avocado, pickled onions, and thick slices of panela cheese. There’s also a cilantro-like herb called papalo and a choice of jalapeños or chipotle sauce.
Most of the meat options involve pork, including the familiar carnitas and al pastor. There’s a breaded milanesa-style pork, pork-skin cueritos, and salt-cured cecina. Prices range from six to ten dollars, the cost going up the more unfamiliar the pork gets. Those last two made me curious to experiment, but the woman behind the counter said one sandwich was far and away the restaurant’s most popular, so I went with that. The Cubano.
It features that milanesa, along with thin slices of ham and thick slices of a frankenfurter-like sausage. Since it was nine bucks, I demurred on an upgrade in the cheese department. I like panela’s mild flavor and chewy texture and wanted to focus on the flavors of the chipotle sauce and papalo. However, for $1.25 extra you get quesillo, aka Oaxacan string cheese. After the sandwich was made, I tried a little of this. It was sharp and slightly pungent, with amazing texture. Made from stretched cheese curds, it’s flavorful enough to make for a great sandwich on its own, without any meat (also an option here).
My first cemita experience was a winner. The chipotle sauce overpowered the pork a little bit, but the thick sandwich satisfied me beyond just the novelty. And I want to believe it’s better than any cemitas they’re eating in Brooklyn.