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I want to start by saying that I love and enjoy tortas very much. But if we're talking about eating Mexican sandwiches in general, I'll swap a torta out for a cemita every time.
Of course, there's no real reason to compare these two disparate but equally lovely things. But these two are certainly business associates, and after reading about a billion Yelp reviews on camiterias, it seems tortas and cemitas are often confused.
First, the extremely delicious torta is flexible. You can determine the bread choice by whimsy: people build tortas with bolillo or telera rolls, but plenty of tortas come with pan frances (French-style) or birote (sourdough) rolls, and no doubt others. Frequent filling suspects include grilled meat, breaded/fried meat, nopales, cabbage, cheese, avocado, scrambled eggs, pickled veggies, refried beans, lettuce, and tomatoes, but these are hazy guidelines. I sometimes like the grab-bag mystery of having no idea what's about to happen with a Dagwood-type kitchen sink sando, but honestly? I sometimes get overwhelmed by the anarchy of a torta. It can be a food tornado—everything in your face at once.
While a torta is universally Mexican, the cemita is from the city and state of Puebla. Accordingly, people frequently call the sandwich by its full name, la cemita poblana. So, where a torta can be broad, a cemita is more specific.
A cemita's bread is a sturdy, round cemita—the name of both the bread and the sandwich. It exists in the Venn intersection between a hamburger bun and a French roll. Barely sweet, it's studded with sesame seeds, it's got a crisp crust like a potato chip and a soft middle, and the shape evokes a 1960s flying saucer. There's some flex with the protein: the go-to for a cemita is usually milanesa de pollo or cerdo (a thin fried breaded cutlet, chicken or pork), but it's not uncommon to see asado de res o pollo (grilled beef or chicken), carnitas, lengua, jamón, or pata (pig's or cow's feet).
The rest of the fillings aren't really negotiable. You must have sliced avocado, some stretchy quesillo cheese that's usually in the form of a little shredded nest arranged on top, pickled or chipotle (smoked) chiles, onion, and, least negotiable of all, pápalo—a potent herb in the marigold family with notes of arugula and coriander. A cemita without pápalo would probably still taste good, but no one would respect it.
Unfortunately for me and you and all the cemita lovers in our city, there aren't a ton of cemita outlets in Seattle proper, and only a precious few have pápalo.
The one I like best is Cemitas Poblanas in Highline, a block off of 509, in the strip mall next to a Chevron. (You know the food is gonna be good when the restaurant's name is just the name of the thing they serve.) The smell of roasting chiles hits you right away when you walk in the door. The space is straightforward: a few folding tables, a photo menu on the wall next to a poster of the Virgin Mary, a cooler full of American and Mexican sodas. Service is friendly and chill.
The cemitas are $12.50, but they're colossal. I'm a big dude who can usually throw down, and I always have to take half home. The cemita bread is rustic and seemingly housemade. They put what seems like an entire avocado on each half of the cemitas, which, yes. You can choose between chipotle (smoked) or pickled jalapeños. In addition to the chiles, they add some carroty escabeche, a zippy extra treat. The classic milanesa is fantastic, although I gently prefer the asado de res—they paint the beef with some kind of subtle umami marinade before they grill it. I didn't see the signature cheese nest on my asado de res version the other day, just a thin sheet of quesillo, but the milanesa cemita had both cheese nest and sheet the time before, so I think it's just the luck of the draw. I also like the asado de res 'cause it comes with grilled onions, vs. raw.
When it comes to Maslow's hierarchy of sandwich needs, I usually require a wet, saucy sandwich to be satisfied (the refried beans part of a torta is always thrilling to me for this reason), but that's not an issue with a cemita. There's no mayo or mustard or secret sauce here, and the cemita doesn't need it—the busload of avocado, the oil on the grilled bread, and the slightly melted quesillo take care of the moisture sitch. The balance is pristine. If you absolutely need sauce on your cemita, the spicy pork one will hook you up.
And in case you're wondering, no vegetarian options are to be seen on the menu at Cemitas Poblanas, but I notice they sell nopales as an entree, and I bet they'd make you a cemita with nopales if you asked. Worth a shot.
Cemitas Poblanas is located at 805 S 112th St. They're open each day from 10 AM to 8:30 PM.