Where we try to taste everything!
Cemitas are the Puebla version of an oversized, overstuffed sandwich. They are everywhere…from tiny puestos, holes in the wall with rickety card tables and often waves of heat coming from gas fired flat grills of beaten steel, with shallow depressions that are filled with cooking oil for frying potatoes and nopales, stand alone puestos on the street where buy your food and eat out of hand on the sidewalk, to full restaurants that serve cemitas from a menu.
Our last afternoon in Puebla we knew cemitas were on our menu for lunch, and as we left the Casa Alfenique we asked the group of students at the entry where we should go for cemitas—they recommended the neighborhood El Carmen, which was very close to where we had stopped for chanclas the day before. It was about a 20 minute walk, and we were en route when we passed one of the tiny holes in the wall, the grill in the doorway, 3 women cooking like mad, and a sample cemita displayed on the edge of the grill as an advertisement. The sample cemita was enormous—and the smells of the frying potatoes and nopales was enticing. Also, only one of the 4 card tables was empty. David said “let’s just go here” and as it was 2 blocks from the hotel and we were hungry from all the work of visiting museums, in we went.
As we sat down at the empty table we were able of course to watch all the cooking—it was literally right in front of us. One woman was making tortillas from a pile of masa harina that must have been a foot tall and a foot wide. As she removed the tortilla from the press she passed it back and forth from hand to hand—exactly the same technique I had watched recently in a video about making naan. Each tortilla puffed up as she moved them around the grill. A second woman was chopping onions with an enormous knife. The third was cooking cemitas—she took 3 paper thin pieces of meat, probably pork, and slapped them on the grill. While the meat grilled she prepared the rest of the filling. The bottom of the roll was covered with avocado, strings of Oaxacan cheese (the only cheese we saw in Puebla), slices of onion, an herb papalo which is kind of similar to cilantro though unrelated, a good flavor and quite strong, and a handful of French fries. As you can see from the picture, it is enormous. I was unable to finish my half and I was so very hungry when I started! Anyway, this little place turned out amazing food and was always full—there was a “nicer” cemitas place next door which was empty as we walked by. What a treat. And our 100% good luck eating street food held—no after effects at all.
These were described to us as a kind of sandwich, but though there is bread involved these are nothing like a sandwich.
Small white rolls, which are somehow hollow, are cut in half. The place we went—recommended by our Uber driver, letting us off there instead of taking us back to the hotel as he told the owner “I have some tourists here who want chanclas”— was of course tiny so I could watch the assembly which included shredded chicken, slices of avocado, the top of the roll and then the entire plate is filled with a thin red sauce similar to the red sauce we know from red enchiladas in the states. One order is four chanclas—I ALMOST finished mine, though David had no trouble with his four.
Moles (that’s mo-lays, not the rodent)
Every region seems to have its own specialities when it comes to moles and we had several different such in Puebla.
The dark mole, almost always served over chicken or a chicken wrapped in a corn tortilla, is sprinkled with sesame seeds and is intensely flavored with a very definite chocolate undertone. A little too sweet for me, but David loved it. We also had a mole “house specialty” at the sister hotel Meson Sacristia de la Compania which was not at all sweet, even a bit sour/tangy. I loved that one. The other common mole in Puebla is pipian, ground squash seeds which I liked as well, lots of cumin and a hint of tahini-like flavor. We had this trio at Fonda de la Santa Clara over beef—we were a little tired of chicken on our last night.
Tacos al pastor and tacos arabe, and the grilled mix alambre
Tacos al pastor and tacos arabe are both specialties of Puebla and so good. Arabe means the meat comes wrapped in a flour tortilla, well, halfway between pita bread and a tortilla. The default meat in a taco arabe they call “carne blanco” which means it’s not reddish brown with spices as al pastor is. Simple and delicious, especially with the bright green tomatillo salsa usually on the table.
Al pastor is what we see in the US if you are lucky enough to live near good taquerias: stacked meat, heavily spiced, turning in front of a roaring vertical grill, sliced off in thin pieces and served on corn tortillas with pineapple, onion, and cilantro. OMG so good, almost refreshing with the fresh pineapple on top. I could have eaten those every day if there hadn’t been so many other things to try!
(At the central bus station, which is like an airport with all the companies in one place and a large waiting area surrounded by food stands, the “Rincon Poblano” (Puebla Corner) had tacos arabe and cemitas—but we were on an morning bus and passed, reluctantly.)
Our first night we went to Las Ranas where we ordered the .5kilo of meat with a stack of tortillas. It turned out to be a mix of meats—not sure what all—with peppers and onions and a cover of melted cheese. So delicious and we could not finish, as hungry as we were after a long day of travel.
Every single place we went was so friendly, so helpful, and so welcoming it was easy to jump into foreign foods with happy confidence. For a food festival, go to Puebla!