Sky Full of Bacon

#7: Cemitas China Poblana

Director’s cut version of post starts here.  So here’s a dilemma. (If the following seems too woolly/inside-basebally for you, skip to the picture and the shorter version of the post.)

If you’re reading this you probably know about LTHForum (Chicago food chat site I co-founded) and the Great Neighborhood Restaurants awards (also started mostly by me), which are designed to call attention to, well, any kind of good restaurant, but with a special love for the little ethnic place that tries harder than the other 3 places just like it within a block, and produces something really special.

For instance, Cemitas Puebla, formerly Taqueria Puebla, on North Ave. In fact it figured rather prominently in philosophical discussions we had about the awards, especially in regards to whether we should apply tougher standards on places the more money they charged, or whether there was some absolute standard of deliciousness and that was all that mattered, money or class didn’t enter into it. Me, I took the practical argument that if Rick Bayless makes a Mexican sandwich (which is what a cemitas is) and charges $13.50 for it, you expect it to be made freshly of the highest quality ingredients, and so that’s merely the baseline for him, but if a neighborhood place charges $5 and yet manages to import its cheese and roast its chipotles and cook everything up fresh (as Cemitas Puebla does), then it gets credit for all that going-the-extra-mile-ness compared to the other places serving the same stuff in a more careless fashion. So yeah, Cemitas Puebla stands out for doing all that…

And then today I go to another cemitas place from Puebla, and they do it all too. In fact, better than the last meal I had at Cemitas Puebla, not that it’s not still an estimable place. It’s striking, in fact, how similar the two places are, not just the cemitas but the other things they have, like chalupas and Tacos Arabes, all of which must be typical for Pueblo. But now I wonder, did we give a lot of credit to Cemitas Puebla for doing things freshly and getting the right ingredients from back home, when in fact that’s what any respectable place of this kind would do? Did we give it extra credit… for our ignorance?

While you contemplate that deep question, I’ll let you feast on a picture of the cemitas from Cemitas China Poblana:

Shorter version of post starts here. This is a milanesa, that is, a very thin breaded steak, cooked up fresh as I sat there, in a particular kind of crusty Mexican bun (quite nice), with Pueblan cheese, avocado, roasted chipotle, grilled onions, and— the little leaf— a distinctly floral-medicinal herb called papalo, which they told me is actually grown locally during this time of the year, imported from Mexico in other seasons. They (or rather the woman there; I never heard the male cook say a word) said they also change the weekend specials based on seasonality as well— for instance, making chile en nogada, aka stuffed chiles in walnut sauce (a dish that RST once rhapsodized about when it was made at a now-closed Oaxacan place), in the fall when they have fresh peaches. (I didn’t ask why they weren’t making it right now with fresh peaches, and where it is exactly that peaches are in season in October.)

What’s with the China in the name? The menu explains it, there’s some historical tale of a baby kidnapped by pirates, of Asian descent, who wound up being raised in Puebla, circa 1600-1700, and so the place is named for her and her good works.

So here’s a place that looks like nothin’, it’s about six feet wide and 20 feet long, half a dozen cheap little booths, enough heavy-duty tile on the wall to be a bus station bathroom, and yet the people in there— a couple? Not sure— are in there sweating their butts off making not only the freshest, tastiest cemitas they can, but using local produce and changing their weekend menu with the seasons. Wow. If I had an award to give, I’d give them one. They deserve it as much as Cemitas Puebla, not to take anything away from them. But will a hole in the wall like this in an invisible neighborhood like Brighton Park ever make it onto anybody’s radar, the way a place like Cemitas Puebla, which is soon to be on Diners, Dives & Drive-Ins, just barely has thanks to the attention paid it on LTHForum? Hard to imagine, but if you’re ever anywhere near 42nd and Archer, check ’em out. You won’t be sorry, though you may be lonely there.

Cemitas China Poblana
4231B S. Archer
Chicago IL

Incidentally, the awning says they’re also in Los Angeles, so presumably the Chicago folks are related to somebody who has a similar cemitas business out there.

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