Cemita Discovered. I’m late. So very late.


Considering Mexico is a huge country with a million and one regional variances in food (both home cooking and street food) it’s no wonder why it’s hard to feel as if I know the food. I mean, I know Mexican food because it is what I grew up eating but then again I don’t really know Mexican food. Not when we’re talking about the entire country. Perhaps if I was Rick Bayless or Diana Kennedy I could fashion myself an expert but outside my world of Tex Mex food I sometimes feel as if I barely know a thing. And I’m comfortable with that.

You want to know what I’m not comfortable with? Regional Mexican specialties in my own city that I haven’t tried. Make that regional Mexican specialties just up the freeway from me. As in East Los Angeles.

Right next to downtown, East LA isn’t a neighborhood that I can claim I visit regularly. Heck, most of Los Angeles isn’t on my daily radar for me and so many others I know. We’re spread out, we’re congested, we’re busy and all those other excuses come to mind. But I received a call from Jamie Oliver’s production team a few weeks ago as they were looking for places for an upcoming show. I didn’t feel comfortable passing along my dusty list of favorites that I hadn’t been to in about 5 years and knew a refresher was in order. We made our way up the 5 freeway with my list of favorites and a few new places to check out.

The best suggestion came from my friend Anita from Married With Dinner. Now I’d normally suffer from guilt and a slight sense of shame when an out-of-towner recommends places to eat. But this is Los Angeles. I have yet to meet a person who knows everything about the Southland. Even my beloved husband, a Southern California native, can give you a list of neighborhoods he’s never been to.

But all this is besides the point. The point is this: I am embarrassed and ashamed that a certain sandwich has existed all these years right under my nose. The sandwich is called a Cemita, or Cemita Poblana as it hails from Puebla, Mexico. And clearly I missed the bit by our own hero Jonathan Gold in the LA Weekly. It’s all water under the bridge now because I’m quickly making up for my ignorance. Sesame seeded egg roll meets carnitas or milanesa and is joined by slices of avocado and mexican white cheese. Maybe some sauce. And this is where heaven begins. Because for me I’ve never really been a fan of tortas, the Mexican sandwiches, but this right here is different. To me that soft egg bun makes all the messy difference in the world. Adding chiles or jalapeños will give you heat, your tastebuds will give you pleasure, the rest is history.

Or a newly learned history, that is.

Cemita de Carnitas
Again, no recipe here but more of a serving suggestion. It’s a sandwich and that means exact measurements are never in order. You can add a bit of this and a little bit more of that, but make sure you are using a seeded egg roll. In the photo I made mine with brioche and purists can hate me later but let me tell you it was fantastic. Que rico.

sliced avocados or guacamole
Oaxacan string cheese or Panela, found in Latin markets
Sliced Onions
Perhaps some chiles
Perhaps some salsa roja

Put all the ingredients between the bun. Like a sandwich. I even added lettuce because I needed texture. Inhale.


  1. Hollitosway says

    Hi Matt- Since you’re in LA, do you know the bloggers behind Oishii Eats and Eat, Drink, and be Merry? If no, they’re both Asian bloggers who met each other in the blogosphere and fell in love and got married while looking for the perfect carnitas taco. They have explored Mexican food at both the swankiest as well as the lowliest taco truck locations all throughout LA. I think you’d be friends, or at least you can grab great LA food location suggestions from their websites to give to friends or to try for yourself.
    I live in the East Bay area of California, but I’m originally from San Diego, and I miss the Mexican food down there everyday. I just can’t appreciate a burrito the same way up here in Nor Cal when it’s $9 for one burrito.
    Good luck!

  2. says

    Lovely, lovely shot mate. And Dang, that looks like one amazing sarnie!

    Really enjoying these rustic backdrops you have going on – what is it? Did you make it?

  3. Matt says

    Mr. Wright!

    They’re just baking sheet trays! One under the sandwich, one propped up against it for backdrop :)

  4. says

    I love how the sandwich looks like it is leaning over. Never would have guessed baking trays – they create a great effect. Man this looks delicious!

  5. says

    OK, recipes are all very well and good, but if I want to go to the source, exactly WHERE in East L.A? Bonus points if it’s available somewhere mid-city because I hate to drive.

    It’s funny, because I grew up on the east side (Pasadena) and have lived between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and I can trace this swathe from the Hollywood Hills to the 10 freeway between Malibu/Santa Monica and the San Gabriel Valley that I am reasonably but not extraordinarily familiar with, but if anyone mentions Torrance I start to go “wha?”

  6. Matt says

    Kate — OOPS will you EVER accept my apologies?

    La China Poblana
    3568 Whittier Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90023
    (323) 263-8310

    You are TOO funny! Isn’t that strange who that happens? I love the visual of tracing the swathe from HH to the 10….

  7. says

    Matt, I love this post!! That Cemita looks so good!!

    I can totally relate to your story. I am currently preparing to move back to my home town of Los Angeles, and spent several days last week showing my hubby around to sell him on our new future reality. I actually thought about you while we were in town, too. Hoping I might run into you at one of our many stops. :)

    I was happily surprised that many of my dusty old favorites still rocked, and so sad when some of my rock-solid standbys missed the mark horribly (like Al Gelato on Robertson – what happened to that place? there were ice chips in my gelato!! evil!!!!).

    East L.A. is actually where I was born (cue Cheech & Chong’s Springsteen parody) – believe it or not. My grandmother lived there for many years, but I have not gone back since she moved to San Diego and left the area in the early 80’s, so I only know the old haunts. Honestly, I usually preferred my g’ma’s cooking to most restaurants, anyway.

    I can still remember my mothers favorite taco stand on Whittier Blvd. though, and all of the great greasy Mexican sandwiches she gobbled up with strawberry Jarritos to wash them down, while she shared her tales of cruising down the boulevard back in the day (a la American Graffiti).

    I was never one for tortas either, but this baby looks pretty darned tempting. Way to go, Anita for the lead, and thank you for the post, Matt! I’ll be sure to try this the next time I am in East L.A. (or just driving by).


    ~ Paula

  8. says

    hello fellow matt blogger (once again). that photo looks amazing; i just finished my lunch and I wouldn’t mind eating one of those right now despite the fact that i’m pretty full.

  9. says

    As a British ex-pat living in Long Beach, my knowledge of both Mexican food and the LA food scene is WOEFULLY lacking. This looks so good. I’ll have to check it out. I’ve got to agree with Matt, by the way- that shot it awesome.

  10. says

    You had me at carnitas….Oh my, but that sounds like One Tasty Sammich! Have never been to Los Angeles, but this might demand that I DIY one:)

  11. says

    Uh, yum. And I’m happy to admit my ignorance here. I live in LA and have NEVER heard of a Cemitas. But now that I have…I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled!

    Oh, wait…carnitas is the key ingredient? You think they have a low cholesterol version? Just kidding. I’ll totally go for it real-style.


  12. j gold says

    La China Poblana: real, real good. Elvirita’s: the total godhead. In case you haven’t gotten cemitas out of your system quite yet.

  13. says

    I was fortunate enough to eat some of the best tacos in LA’s Mexican market, simple, refined and so, so fresh, Viva!

  14. says

    I will serve this on Saturday! I am so hungry I don’t know if I can wait for it and it’s only 6:30am on Wednesday. Yes I could eat it this early – thanks for a great post and recipe.

  15. Fabio says

    Hello Matt!

    Although an expat now, I am mexican from top to bottom, and one of the things I regret not having done while in Mexico was to do a tour of regional dishes. I spent long and delightful evenings with friends planning this tour while at Uni.

    Unfurtunately, although I tried my best in my home state (Guanajuato), the rest of the country was not meant to be (too big the country, too ambitious the task) and here I am now nostalgic about my country’s food and wishing that the day will come (and comforted by posts like this one of yours!) to bite into a Cemita, which, you guessed, I have never tasted.

    Anyway, one thing that often came to our conversations was the wonderful reputation of the quality (and quantity!) of mexican food in LA. So, nothing to be embarrased about! And with husband at hand, carry on discovering and sharing, as you have done in this excellent post and its great picture!

    Lots of love from here to there.

  16. No- not that Martha says

    Hey- Did your cemita have papalo? Papalo is a rather pungent herb that’s vaguely like a cross between arugula, cilantro and garden rue. It’s menthol-ly, citrusy and peppery. I was introduced to cemitas and papalo by my fellow Puebla-born line cooks and they assured me it was an essential ingredient along with the sesame seed bun and chipolte peppers – to the tune of an impassioned 45 min lecture\spanking on the on the differences between tortas and cemitas. Any who, it’s hard to find papalo here in NYC and I’m wondering if they include it in the sammie out in CA. FWIW- I like ’em with lengua.

  17. Sarah says

    I’m drooling, that sandwich and that incredible photo are driving me to salivate. I am not a fan of the many tortas I have tried. But this is a whole new sandwich, bun included, yippee!!! Since so many great cooks/chefs come from Puebla it’s no surprise that they have an amazing sandwich to their credit. I am now on the hunt to find one here in Chicago. I applaud the lettuce inclusion, I too love some crunch, especially on a sandwich. But I was wondering if maybe a shredded cabbage and radish slaw in a spicy hot peppery vinegar dressing might not be a good addition here?

    A few weeks back I ate a Mexican style gyros and it rocked my world. I was in a new neighborhood, hungry, and I just followed my nose to this joint. It was pork and not lamb obviously, but it was gyros in style and presentation. The corn tortilla was thick like a traditional pita and grilled to perfection. Delicious. Once the seasoned succulent pork was shaved off the upright rotisserie it fell onto the tortilla and all that was added was some cilantro and a few small squeezes of lime. AMEN! Consider me a convert. I wish I knew what it was called but nobody spoke English there and I speak no Spanish. DAMN. There wasn’t even a menu. It was a tiny take away joint and all I was asked was how many I wanted, with hand gestures :-) I ate three, like the big boys I was standing shoulder to shoulder with at the tiny counter. It’s all they serve there, or at least all they were going to serve to me. Anybody have an idea what I ate there, a name maybe? I have to go back with a friend who speaks Spanish so I can get some details. That, and find out if they make anything else so I can eat that too :-)

  18. says

    This looks incredibly delicious! Thanks for sharing. I’ll be heading down there to try it and then hopefully recreating the magic at home =)

  19. says

    Cemitas! Yeah, discovering them (easy here in Puebla York) made me feel like you feel about Dominican chimis. “Where have you been all my life?” You’re right, the bun makes all the difference.

    Damn, will have to make a trip to Queens to have one RIGHT NOW!!!

  20. says

    It funny how the simple is always the most tasty….sound fantastic Mexican food has so many interpretations there is no way to know about all of it all of the time. :)

  21. says

    Man oh man. Boy, does that make me peckish! Having lived in Mexico for a year, Im all too familiar (or unfamiliar that is) with the regional differences. I was living in Xalapa, Veracruz where the idea of a burrito is about as foreign as good Japanese was! I actually happened to like tortas, but that bun definitely looks like it could change my mind. Is it crisp and chewy? Beautiful photo, would never have suspected baking trays :)

  22. says

    como dice la cancion (no recuerdo de quien):
    “…dejenme que estoy llorando…”…yes querido Matt I’m almost in tears just to think in cemitas. I’m from Cuernavaca (State of Morelos) relatively close to the city of Puebla so cemitas are pretty familiar to me.

    As far as I know, cemitas is the bun, which is a brioche like dough (you were right) with just a hint of aniseed, but we tend to use it for the torta too (I do loooove tortas btw, in case you wanted to know).

    My favorite way to eat cemitas is with frijoles refritos, queso fresco and a little bit of jalapenos. Torta de pobre 😉

    besos desde Shanghai, keep posting those wonderful recipes

  23. Charlie B. says

    You have to try the cemitas from LA CHINA POBLANA. If you really want an authentic cemita this is the place. They are on Whittier Bld. about 2-3 blocks from Idiana Street.

    The reason i know they are so good is because about 5 years ago they used to be one of those mobile sandwich trucks that you see all over Los Angeles, and know thaey have established a great restaurant .

    Whatever you do. Make sure you buy an extra to take home because you wont find them anywhere (except Mexico)…… that are this good

  24. says

    Looks so delicoso! I find it ironic that our “experts” on Mexican cuisine aren’t Mexican. That looks pretty expert to me, and definitely doable at home.

  25. Eline B. says

    I know this is a very old post, but I know how it feels when you want to reproduce such indulgent flavors! specially if they’re reminiscent of home! You’ve probably come across another recipe already, but in case you have not and if you want to practice your spanish and a new recipe; I found the following post for you: http://mx.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080919125654AAesXEh
    Interestingly most of the truly homemade mexican recipes I’ve come across (I am mexican myself) are usually found this way (forums and the like). BTW, the recipe at the top is actually what you are looking for! and if you have a question on translation or anything mexican really…just flick an email!


  1. […] 6. Pueblan cemita This Mexican street food might look like any other burger at first glance, but don’t be fooled: the crusty, fluffy sesame roll packs a surprisingly flavorful punch. Hearty fried beef is sweetened by slices of avocado and marinated onion, then spiced up with cheese and papalo (which is like a citrus-y cilantro). Photo: Matt Armendariz […]

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