A Meal in a Sandwich: Tortas, Cemitas, Pambazos

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen

For months after we moved to Mexico several years ago, my favorite place to eat here in Cholula was a hole-in-the-wall tortería called Tortas Alex. Although a Mexican torta goes far beyond what is normally described as a sandwich – it was something delicious, satisfying and comforting when we needed it most. This was long before tortas and cemitas were sold in U.S. cities, and the closest foods resembling them were Italian heros and submarines.

In those days, both shopping in the market and eating in local restaurants were great on weekends, but not after the daily commute to work in downtown Puebla. It was then that the familiar offerings at Tortas Alex were most welcome. The torpedo-shaped roll called a telera, spread on one side with smooth refried beans and on the other with a slathering of Mexican crema, waited to be stuffed with the filling of choice, all listed on the giant chalkboard that hung over the counter.

There were tables, too, crowded into the small space, but sitting at the counter gave the customers a view of the tortas being made and an opportunity to oversee the production. If the counterman began adding on the usual pickled jalapeños, he could be stopped by the non-chile lover before it was too late, because picking any one ingredient out of a sandwich this size is a messy undertaking.

Personally, I do like a few strips of pickled jalapeño on a torta, along with the usual garnishes of sliced tomato, avocado and onion, all piled high. The big decision was always the main ingredient, a favorite being a milanesa – a breaded, fried pork or chicken cutlet. The hot, crisp and slightly greasy meat was perfect with the cool freshness of the tomato and the creaminess of the avocado.

Other fillings listed on the board included chicken, ham, Oaxaca string cheese and pork in adobo sauce, in any combination. Another choice was whether to eat the torta as is, or have it heated in a sandwich press. Either way, it was stuffed to over spilling and required the use of several paper napkins and both hands.

The filled tortas prepared at torterías are called tortas compuestas and, as time went on, we discovered several other types of tortas in Mexico. The torta called a guajolota consists of a telera roll stuffed with two tamales, usually of mole or chile strips. These are sold on the street in the morning by the tamal vendors, frequently served with the thick corn beverage, atole. This carb-o-rama is guaranteed to get anyone through until the afternoon comida.

Then there is the torta ahogada, literally meaning “drowned torta” that we tasted in Guadalajara. A specialty of Jalisco, this consists of a bread roll filled with pork carnitas and tomato sauce, then dipped in a red chile sauce. When only half submerged in the sauce, it is called media ahogada. We loved them and tried several, some with onion and avocado slices, and some spread with refried beans.

Another item in the Mexican sandwich repertoire is the cemita (sometimes spelled “semita”) a popular regional treat in Central Mexico. The rolls called cemitas in Puebla and Tlaxcala are different from the semi-sweet rolls called cemitas in other parts of the country. In Puebla, a cemita is a round, crusty bread roll, shaped something like a Kaiser roll, sprinkled with sesame seeds and containing no sugar. Cemitas are traditionally baked to a deep, golden brown in wood ovens and sold on the streets outside the markets by vendors balancing huge basketsful of them, usually on bicycles. Inside the market, small stands with a few counter seats sell the cemitas custom made into sandwiches.

Most likely named for a Spanish bran bread called acémita, cemitas can be filled with any of the usual torta fillings, but also have some of their own special ones. Classic cemita fillings are tongue, potatoes and jellied pigs’ feet, all of which provide a good textural contrast to the crunchiness of the roll. The traditional chile served on a cemita is chipotle, either in adobo sauce or pickled. The sweet and hot pickled chipotles called chipocludos in Puebla are a common garnish on cemitas. So is the indigenous herb pápalo, named for the Nahuatl word papalotl, or butterfly, which it resembles because of the shape of its leaves. Pápalo has a distinctive, somewhat pungent flavor, and I suggest asking to try a taste of it before having it put on the sandwich.

Like cemitas, the sandwiches called pambazos are popular in Central Mexico, though I have seen versions of them in Veracruz and Michoacan. On Sunday nights, families congregate in and around the main plaza of nearly every Mexican town. Each has its own night time snack specialties, and here in Cholula the pambazo is a favorite. The soft roll is filled with cooked, shredded chicken or Oaxaca cheese, topped with a savory sauce and garnished with avocado and onion. In Toluca and Michoacan, pambazos are more likely to be filled with chorizo and potatoes. The rolls with which these are made, also called pambazos, are sold in the local bakeries to people who make pambazos at home. Also worth making at home is the wonderfully spicy tomato sauce, flavored with guajillo chiles, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. It can be made in quantity, frozen in small containers, and pulled out to make a delicious hot sandwich in no time with whatever filling is available.

While all of these sandwiches are made with their own special breads, French bread or kaiser rolls can be substituted. The Mexican rolls called bolillos are similar to teleras and are available any place where there is a Mexican community. Teleras, having two cuts made in them before baking, are flatter than bolillos, but both always have the soft insides, called the miga, torn out before filling the roll.

With the warm summer months upon us, tortas and other hearty Mexican sandwiches make a quick, easy, light supper, a one-dish meal that includes the protein in the meat, cheese and bean spread, the carbohydrates in the bread, and the built-in salad of sliced tomatoes, avocado and onion. In Central Mexico, tortas are usually made without lettuce, but it is included in other places.

Although we still enjoy buying tortas compuestas, it didn’t take too long to realize that the torta, though often inspired, is not a work of culinary genius and can be made quite easily at home. If you like them hot, a panini press works well, or place them in a hot pan and press down with a wide spatula, turning once. Just include those Mexican natives, avocado, tomatoes and beans, and leave the rest to your imagination.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2008 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
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