It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.
A sandwich is sometimes named for the unique bread it goes on. Such is the case with the cemita. This superb sandwich native to the Mexican state of Puebla is made with a round roll paved with sesame seeds, reminding us of the Middle Eastern influences in the city of Puebla that date to a century ago. Unlike the bread used in such other Mexican sandwiches as the torta or pambazo, the cemita dough is rich with eggs, almost like a brioche. Indeed, I have heard that in Puebla the roll is traditionally baked with cactus pulp in the dough, since cactus is ubiquitous in the state and cheaper than wheat flour.
The cemita is made according to a formula that rarely varies. It is an overstuffed sandwich, incorporating one main ingredient, plus a raft of subsidiary ones. Those include black or red beans, Oaxacan string cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocado slices, purple onions, jalapeños, and occasionally, fresh or canned cactus.
Most places in town — including Coatzingo, an offshoot of Taqueria Coatzingo three blocks east — that make them offer a choice of 10 or so main ingredients, running to breaded and fried beef milanesa, skinless chorizo and eggs, carne enchilada, head cheese luncheon loaf, and boiled ham and cheese. But the most important ingredient may not be the main ingredient or any of the fillers, but a simple leaf beloved by Pueblans.
That leaf is papalo, a round, shiny, dark green leaf of notable astringency. Just a few scattered in the sandwich create a unique flavor that gives a cemita its distinct pungency and binds the rest of the diverse flavors together. For my cemita ($8), I picked cecina as a filling and received a big wad of the dried and grilled signature meat of the state. It tastes beefier than regular beef, though expect it to give you a workout of a chew. 79-11 Roosevelt Ave., between 79th and 80th streets, Jackson Heights