For the purposes of this list, we’re sticking both tortas and cemitas under the umbrella of “Mexican sandwiches.” The truth is, though, Mexican sandwiches display an infinite variety of toppings, fillings, and bread, and there are dissertations to be written on the differences. Read on for our five favorite tortas and cemitas in New York City. By Jessica Allen.
The cemita, a sandwich served on a sesame-seed covered bun or roll, at Cafe Ollin, a Mexican restaurant in East Harlem, is a force. Bigger than a Big Mac, it requires considerable jaw flexibility in order to squeeze every last bit of chorizo, potatoes, cactus, jalapenos, onions, avocado, lettuce, beans, papalo (a green that’s similar to cilantro), and oaxacan cheese into your mouth. You might do some exercises or stretching to prepare.
As you’d expect from the name, Cascabel Taqueria specializes in tacos—just check out the restaurant’s URL: nyctacos.com. Oh, but the cemita poblano is worth ordering too. Its version, named for Puebla, the region in Mexico where the cemita originated, begins with shredded Berkshire pork butt, then adds oaxaca cheese, smooshed avocado, aioli, mango, queso fresco, and papalo. The photo doesn’t do it justice.
By all means, get the tacos at Tacos Matamoros (pictured). They are amazing, and cheap. Just don’t fill up. Instead, save room for the cemita, specifically the one that comes stuffed with carne asada. The grilled beef, cheese, onion, tomato, and avocado form a stratified mass of flavor, each bite calibrated to give you some meat, some veg, some bread. Other versions include chicken, ham, flank steak, pork, and sausage and egg.
The torta is another type of Mexican sandwich, served on a sandwich roll that may be toasted, grilled, or served cold. At Tortas Neza, a Vendy Award-nominated food truck that parks along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, the torta is truly something to behold. Each one is named for a Mexican soccer club, including Pumas of Mexico City. With cheese, vegetables, and several types of meat, it costs $14, comes on a browned bun, and is more or less the size of your head. Word on the street is the owner of Tortas Neza is currently working out of Juan Bar in Jackson Heights for the winter. It’s not known yet whether the Tortas Neza truck will return this spring.
We like to begin our meals at Tulcingo de Valle with chips and salsa (pictured), to warm up our palates and prep them for the main event: the sandwich. At this Mexican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, you can get either a torta or a cemita stuffed with such ingredients as queso blanco (white cheese), beef tongue, salted beef, fried pork, breaded chicken, or head cheese. If the variety doesn’t blow your mind, the taste—full of love and seasoning—certainly will.