This column was supposed to be about Las Nuevas, the popular sandwich shop in the Calle Primero district of East L.A. The shop is marked with a battered old “TORTAS” sign outlined in neon, and a notice in the window reads “El Rey de los Tortas,” King of the Tortas, a claim I have no reason to disbelieve.
Las Nuevas makes a classic torta, neither the overstuffed luxury torta you find at places like Super Torta or Doña Rosa, nor the chile-sogged torta ahogado that has just made its way into Los Angeles from Guadalajara, but a lean, spare construction of a well-toasted roll, a sliver of avocado, a bit of cheese perhaps and a layer of meat: chopped carne asada, a thin slice of fried chicken milanesa, maybe some pork loin. For an extra buck or two, as is customary at torta joints, you can get the sandwichà la Cubana, which is to say layered with ham and cheese.
On a 100-degree afternoon in the profoundly un-air-conditioned restaurant, Las Nuevas feels exactly right: the scowling Eastside hipster behind the counter and the glowing beauty who cooks; the sweaty bottle of Peñafiel plucked from a tub of ice; the crisp sandwich that leaps into immortality with a dab of the housemade chipotle salsa; the clean, hamburger-stand funk of frying meat — this is East Los Angeles at the height of summer. The cinnamon-dusted banana shakes are pretty magnificent too.
But as I was contemplating my sandwich the other day, cuddling up to the roaring fan and gnawing on a fresh-roasted jalapeño chile I had snagged from the condiment bar, I began to wonder whether this was really the best sandwich available on the Eastside at the moment. I began specifically to wonder about Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita, a restaurant I always passed on the way to Las Nuevas, on the spot where 10 years ago I tasted one of the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I left behind half of a perfectly good torta, an impeccable milanesa à la Cubana, in anticipation of a second lunch.
Elvirita is a small double storefront just up the hill from El Mercado and across the street from a big cemetery, smack in the middle of the excavations for the Gold Line extension scheduled to start running some time next year. A decade or so ago, the original Cemitas Poblanas, a café in the same location, was probably the first Puebla-style restaurant in Los Angeles, the first place specifically devoted to cemitas, perhaps the greatest of Mexico’s sandwiches.
A cemita looks superficially like a Big Mac — both sandwiches are multilayered concoctions on oversize, sesame-seeded buns — but the seeded roll of a cemita is actually closer to dense, hard-grilled brioche than it is to a hamburger bun, and McDonald’s rarely offers jellied pig’s feet as an option. After the roll is griddle-toasted to a fine, oily crunchiness, it is then crammed with cheese, slices of avocado ripe enough to constitute a condiment, and a layer of chiles, either pickled jalapeños or smoky chipotle chiles. There is a layer of meat over the chiles — Poblano head cheese, perhaps, or the slippery pickled pigskin called cueritos, or chicken, or Puebla-style carnitas stewed to dense porkiness, but usually a parchment-thin sheet of breaded, fried beef — the familiar pan–Latin American meat milanesa, named after the Milanese way of cooking veal — burnished to a bronzed crispness in a vat of hot, clean oil.
Almost as soon as Cemitas Poblanas opened in the late 1990s, it seemed to close, then move down near USC, then reappear in its original location, only to vanish again. Elvirita shares not only the address but the phone number of the old restaurant; the old sandwich price list seems to be still affixed to a pantry wall, and the legend “Cemitas Poblanas” dwarfs the “Elvirita” on the sign outside. The old television set has been replaced with a big flat-screen, still blaring Spanish-language talk shows and soccer games, and the glass-front cooler is still full of exotic Mexican sodas. (The label of a mango-flavored drink called Boing is decorated with a picture of a muscular construction worker and what looks very much like two peeled testicles: manly.) If you peek inside the kitchen, you might see a cook pulling the Poblano string cheese known as quesillo into a tubful of what looks like blown-in insulation, another carefully slicing avocado, a third preparing a bin of papalo, an astrigent Poblano herb that looks a little like watercress and tastes a little like Vietnamese rau ram, and is supposedly essential to proper cemitas, although to be honest, I had never seen the herb in Los Angeles until recently.
Is it the original Cemitas Poblanas? Nobody who worked at the restaurant could tell me, but to my teeth the sandwiches were even better than the ones I thought I had lost eight years ago — careful, lush compositions of crisp milanesa and quesillo; juicy carnitas and quesillo; head cheese and quesillo; and, in one memorable instance, quesillo and quesillo, punctuated with avocado and chipotles. There is the Poblano specialty called taco arabe, carbonized nubs of pork (perversely enough for an Arab taco) dressed with chipotle salsa and rolled like shwarma into a flour tortilla standing in for the pita. And there are giant quesadillas stuffed with the black, musky fungus huitlacoche. You can combine the two most famous Puebla dishes in cemitas de mole, sandwiches stuffed with shredded chicken in a spicy, pitch-black mole Poblano — as perfect as it is possible to imagine a sandwich to be.
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1 Restaurante, 3010 E. First St., E.L.A., (323) 881-0428. Open daily, 10:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, $10–$15. Recommended dishes: tacos arabe, cemitas de carnitas, cemitas de milanesa con quesillo.
Las Nuevas, 3701 E. First St., East L.A., (323) 264-0678. Open daily, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Street parking. Lunch for two, food only, $7–$10. Recommended dishes: Torta de milanesa, banana shake.