Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 4), we'll be counting down, in no particular order, 100 of our favorite dishes.
No. 99: Cemita de Milanesa at Cemitas Poblanos Elviritas #1.
There are sandwiches, and then there are sandwiches. The towering Mexican creation known as the cemita, a burly cousin of the torta and specialty of the state of Puebla, is set firmly in the latter camp — in fact, it has about as much in common with your standard coldcut as a two-door Fiat has with an Abrams tank. It might just be one of the most formidable things ever stuck between two pieces of bread.
There is simply no room for filler here. A grilled sesame-studded roll, hard-shelled on the exterior but soft as brioche inside, is stacked with oily sheets of breaded fried beef, a heap of stringy quesillo, a smattering of sliced avocado, raw white onion, smoky chipotle peppers or pickled jalapenos, and a few leaves of a pungent herb called papalo, which smells like a mixture of mint, pepper and laundry detergent. For a dollar or two more, they'll even slip in a piece of Poblano head cheese if that's your kind of thing; the aspic dissolves under the heat of the sizzling meat and forms a spreadable, offal-based condiment of sorts that pushes the richness to atmospheric levels.
Cemitas Poblanas Elvirita #1, a sedate little shop in Boyle Heights located across the street from the city's oldest and largest cemetery, is the unequivocal answer to the best cemita in town. On weekends the tables bristles with families sharing paper-wrapped sandwiches and bobbing their heads to the accordion-driven Norteno music blaring out of an old jukebox. Sure, there are other things on the menu here besides the cemita, and people order them too — the taco arabe, filled with bits of chipotle-stewed pork neatly rolled into a flour tortilla, or the hefty quesadillas lined with sauteed squash blossoms or pitch-black huitlacoche.
On most days, though, it seems that the kitchen functions as a veritable assembly line for the sandwich, run in a fashion efficient enough to please Henry Ford. One guy tears off pieces of quesillo cheese from a large white ball, like unwinding a massive ball of string, and piles it in a large fluffy mound. Another whizzes through a box of pale-green avocados with his knife — each sandwich is paved with almost a whole one. And even though you can choose from whatever meat you like, which includes a chicken cooked in a dark and bitter mole negro or long-braised carnitas, the guy pulling crunchy golden-brown sheets of steak milanesa from the hot oil at the fryer often looks the busiest. At the end of the line comes your fully loaded cemita, a thing that commands your undivided attention.
Check out the rest of our 100 of our favorite dishes. Suggestion? Write us a comment.