Beware the Dangerous Cemita
View more photos in Anne Fishbein's photo gallery, "The King of Mexican Sandwiches: Beware the Dangerous Cemita."
Let no man interpret my regard for pambazos as anything but reverence; my fondness for tortas ahogadas as anything but sincere. I even like doughy Mexican-style tortas cubanas, even — especially — when the provenance of the ham and cheese is base enough to make Michael Pollan weep salty, salty tears. But the king of Mexican sandwiches is the beefy construction known as the cemita poblana, a brawny, layered thing of ripe avocados and marinated onions and tofu-textured panela cheese, a couple of chipotle peppers to add some smoky heat and a few wisps of fried beef or chicken to give the sandwich some heft, all crowbarred into a cemitas bun: a hard-crusted roll glazed with a sweetish egg wash and sprinkled with sesame seeds, the kind of roll that could take the teeth out of your mouth as easily as an embittered NHL enforcer with a grudge.
A cemita is not a sandwich that you dive into headfirst; it is a sandwich you have to sneak up on, nibbling around the edges, softening the natural defenses of the thing before you dare to attack its sweet, greasy heart. It is for these reasons that we prefer cemitas garnished with quesillo, not just for the mild, milky tang of the hand-pulled Oaxacan string cheese, but for its cushioning effect on the assault. A cemita is a sandwich that will fight you back.
Over the last year or so, the cemitas cult in Los Angeles has probably centered around Cemitas y Clayudas Pal Cabron in Huntington Park, not necessarily because the restaurant serves the very best cemitas in town — I would still grant that honor to the minimalist version at Elvirita's, across from the cemetery in Boyle Heights — but because Pal Cabron celebrates the sandwich with such passion, splashing its walls with paintings of a slouching dude with a beer gut who clutches with equal indifference a sandwich, a beer and two narrow-waisted cabronas; naming each cemita for a Mexican television star as pneumatic as it is; and presenting the sandwiches in their jaw-busting, maximalist glory, cemitas so big, meats and cheeses overflowing even the pockets torn out for them in the rolls, that a heroic, manly feat is required to eat even one.
Some people think the most indelible feature of the restaurant may be the mural in the men's room, a painted chorus of women gazing awestruck at the majesty of your crotch. Is there soccer on the TV in the corner? Always. Is the music fancy? Nah, just the radio.
A real cabron also gets three to go, says a sign painted over the front door.
The owners of Pal Cabron, Bricia and Fernando Lopez, are the scions of the family that owns Guelaguetza, the midtown chainlet that pretty much defined Oaxacan cooking in Los Angeles. It was at Guelaguetza that many of us ate our first proper mole, learned how to eat a clayuda and gazed on fried grasshoppers for the first time. Guelaguetza customers watched Bricia and Fernando grow up in the restaurant. So when Bricia was hit by the thunderbolt when she tasted cemitas on a trip to Puebla a couple of years ago, she was driven to re-create them less from a cultural imperative than from her admiration as a fan, a need to remake the splendid things in her own image.
And when her family let her take over the Guelaguetza branch just off the main drag, she went all the way: There is a baker in-house to make the rolls; fresh, raw-milk string cheese imported straight from Oaxaca; and a relentless online presence that the Kogi guys might envy. Pal Cabron is remarkably well-established in the blog-food hierarchy for a sandwich shop out in Huntington Park — and it wallows in the glorious junkiness of the tradition, selling odd Mexican chips and obscure Mexican pop, half-liters of Mexican Fresca and cold micheladas — Pacifico beer, fresh lime, hot sauce and a lashing of Maggi, served in chilled glasses whose rims have been dipped in a concoction of salt, chile and crushed maguey worms.
There are clayudas: the giant, thin Oaxacan-style tostadas smeared with lardy bean paste, and sprinkled with meat, lettuce and the quesillo, also with nubs of chorizo or chile-rubbed slabs of the semidried pork called cecina if you like. They're not on the wall menu, but you can find crisp-bottomed fried memelas here, which are like mini-huaraches, as well as excellent Puebla-style chalupas: small griddled tortillas wetted with superspicy green and milder red salsa.
I like the cemitas stuffed with lamb barbacoa, chipotle, a handful of acrid papalo leaves and an extra dose of quesillo. And a michelada, of course, if not two. Who couldn't use a little extra worm in his diet?
CEMITAS Y CLAYUDAS PAL CABRON: 2560 E. Gage Ave., Huntington Park. (323) 277-9899, lascabronas.com. Open Sun.-Wed., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 a.m. MC, V. Beer. Street parking. Takeout. Cemitas, $4.75-$5.95; clayudas, $5.95-$9.75.
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