Cemitas, Chicharrones and Horchata

In Eating Food on August 31, 2010 at 10:42 am

Week 26
Cemitas and Chicharrones

If you haven’t heard of cemitas, don’t sweat it. That means one of three things: you don’t live in Chicago, you live in Chicago but don’t get to Humboldt Park very often, or you don’t watch Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives on the Food Network. (It’s entirely possible, for thee as with me, for more than one of those things to be true at the same time. Guess which two.)

A cemita is a Mexican sandwich, one that originated in Puebla and that’s distinguished from the more common torta by its base — a fluffy, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-and-chewy-on-the-inside, sesame seed bun. It’s also the signature dish of Cemitas Puebla, a tiny father-and-son-owned Mexican restaurant in West Humboldt that can be only described, in the nicest and most accurate possible way, as a hole-in-the-wall.

Cemitas Puebla has maybe ten tables, with those steel-and-vinyl hotel wedding banquet chairs. The ceiling tiles are covered with water stains and crazy posters of Bruce Lee, soccer teams, Mexican Bugs Bunny cartoons and Oscar de la Hoya; the walls are covered with pictures of the elder Cemitas Puebla owner posing with customers, Chicago dignitaries, and athletes from around the world. You order at the counter, from the younger owner himself, and minutes — maybe even seconds — later, the food’s at your table. We ordered two cemitas, a chicarrones quesadilla, and a chorizo-and-carne asada taco called the Gov. Precioso.

The Precioso was delicious, with gobs of avocado, cilantro and white onion on not one but two corn tortillas. There are three bottles of house-made salsa on each table — red, green and brick. The red’s a pretty basic, if tasty, tomato salsa; the brick is made from chipotle chiles of a quality that the owner insists you just can’t get in the States. (So he travels back to Puebla every six weeks to pick up a bundle of the real deal.) And the green is simply stunning: The Husband asked about its ingredients, and it’s just tomatillos, avocado, cilantro, garlic, salt and lime juice, but it’s totally ethereal and I kind of wish I could take a bath in it.

Like I said, the Gov. Precioso was good — but tacos are old news. The chicarrones quesadilla and the cemitas, on the other hand: earth-shatteringly good novelty.

Chicarrones are cracklings; cracklings are pork rinds; pork rinds are chunks of deep-fried, cured pork skin*. If you don’t think that sounds delicioso, you’re loco. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The quesadilla was loaded with melty, stretchy Oaxaca cheese, and crispy/greasy/crunchy-chewy/just-salty-enough chicharrones. Despite being too hot to handle or safely eat, we wolfed the whole thing down in about twenty seconds — it was that kind of good, especially with the green salsa. Now that I’ve had fresh-from-the-fryer chicharrones, I can’t believe 1) I’ve gone this many years without having them before, and 2) that they share a name (and only a name) with those monstrous puffed bagged pork rind snack things.

Appetizers packed away, we moved on to the sandwiches. I had a carne asada cemita, with some of the most perfectly tender steak I’ve ever eaten. The Husband, of course, ordered the signature dish: The Atomica, a three-meat monster that combines three sandwiches’ worth of ingredients. The Milanese consists of a breaded, deep-fried butterflied pork chop; the Carne Enchilada sports a guajillo chile-marinated butterflied pork chop; and the Jamon is, simply, thick-cut ham. The Atomica’s all three:

plus a good slathering of ripe avocado and so much finely shredded Oaxaca cheese that at first glance I thought it was a cabbage coleslaw:

Cemitas Puebla is BYOB, which is rad. They also have a huge selection of Jarritos, those crazy super-sweet Mexican fruit sodas. The Husband ordered pina, the pineapple flavor, which was good in a liquified Jolly Rancher kind of way. I tried ordering hibiscus water, but they’d just changed the menu due to seasonality, and were serving canteloupe water instead. I took a pass on that — canteloupe being quite possibly my most (in fact, only) hated fruit — and ordered a horchata instead. Another thing I’d never tried before, horchata is a sweetened, cinnamon-spiked rice-based drink of which, as it turns out, I am not at all a fan. I felt sort of guilty wasting it, since they served me approximately a gallon for $1, but good lord is it sweet. (Mental note: maybe a good candidate for sherbet making?)

Despite its status as a Guy Fieri-endorsed restaurant, Cemitas Puebla is awesome. (We got home and ten minutes later, The Husband asked if we could go back.) And it’s stupifyingly cheap: we got two sandwiches, a quesadilla, a taco and two drinks — all of which were gigantic, and some of which we wound up taking home and eating the next day — for $23 including tax. Don’t miss the coupon for free chalupas on their website. Though if you do, it’s just another reason to go back again soon.

*Other fun global terms for deep-fried pork skin, lest you think it’s a solely a south of the border or trashy Texarkana convenience store kind of thing, include scrunchions (Newfoundland), oreilles de Christ, or Christ’s ears (Quebec), scratchings (United Kingdom), knabbelspek (The Netherlands), grattons (France), jumari (Romania), and пръжки (Bulgaria).

  1. mmm sounds good if not a little too meaty for me — sounds like a place my Husband would like. Maybe we can go there when we visit?

    • We were thinking about going straight there from the airport, since we’ll have the Zipcar anyway. Looks like we’ll be taking you guys on an ethnic sandwich tour of Chicago. 😉

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