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The cemita: A volcano-shaped — and -sized — must-eat when visiting Puebla

One of a number of full-flavored regional delicacies in Puebla, the cemita is big in flavor, big in tradition and just plain big.

PUEBLA, Mexico (CN) — In the small highway town of Acajete, one exceptionally fleet-footed "Firulais" (Mexican Spanish for “Fido”) has made a rather felonious name for herself. 

It’s hard to blame her, however, for the crime of which she stands accused is only petty theft of the delicious — and gigantic — local delicacy known as a cemita: an overgrown and overflowing sandwich that is decidedly not your run-of-the-mill torta. 

The modest amount of attention the cemita thief has garnered in the media sends a riotous bout of laughter through the staff and management at Cemitas El Portal, but the problem is serious enough for them to have to put up signs in the restaurant warning clients of the threat to their takeaway.

Posted on the glass bread case at the front counter, the signs read: “Watch out. Beware of dog. She steals cemitas.” 

“We warned people about her at first, but they didn’t believe us. That’s why we had to put up the sign,” said Ángeles López Díaz, who manages the restaurant her mother-in-law opened over 30 years ago. “They’d think we were joking, then come back and say, ‘It’s true. She stole my cemitas.’”

The repeat offender — one of dozens of street dogs scrounging to get by on the two-lane highway that bisects Acajete — was caught in the act in a video shared on Twitter this month by local journalist Juan Carlos Valerio. 

“I think she’s raising puppies and that’s why she steals the cemitas,” said López, who added that other street dogs have picked up the practice from her, yoinking not only cemitas, but bread, meat or anything else people buy from the nearby market or other restaurants lining the highway. “The dogs will take whatever they’ve got.”

Signs posted at Cemitas El Portal in Acajete, Puebla, warn customers to guard their cemitas when they take them to-go. "Beware of dog," they read. "She steals cemitas." (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

But, as with locals and visitors alike, the cemita is definitely one of their favorites. 

Endemic to the nearby city of Puebla — capital of the state of the same name — and environs, the cemita boasts several qualities that set it apart from the other bread roll sandwiches in Mexico known as tortas. 

It’s a sandwich of extremes in both size — the average cemita weighs in at just under two pounds — and flavor. The bottom slice of bread is generally hidden beneath the ingredients that spill over it, and the traditional recipe includes a particularly pungent herb known locally as pápaloquelite, or pápalo for short. 

Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, author of the Larousse Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mexican Gastronomy, told Courthouse News that the cemita poblana (from Puebla) is different from the torta for various reasons. Firstly, the shape and recipe of the bread. 

The bread is a “very crunchy, volcano-shaped” roll, said Muñoz, who is also the chef and owner of the highly acclaimed Azul Restaurantes in Mexico City.

While some online rumors attribute the bread to the Second French Intervention in Mexico in the 1860s, Muñoz has done several gastronomical tours of Europe and did not find a possible progenitor among the breads there.

“The bread is neither French nor Spanish. It was a poor person’s bread, made from the scraps of wheat that someone decided to take advantage of and use,” he said. It was once called acemita, which is a mixture of wheat bran and flour, but the name has since changed. 

“Now it’s also a bread for rich people,” said Muñoz, who asked to share credit for his knowledge with Puebla historian Lilia Martínez.

Food stalls in Puebla's Mercado de Sabores (Market of Flavors) get ready for another busy day of serving both tourists and locals alike. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Next, the ingredients. A cemita must have healthy helpings of avocado and the stringy, salty cheese known as quesillo, the origins of which Puebla contends with the neighboring state of Oaxaca, and usually a drizzle of olive oil. Chipotle chiles, which are smoke-dried jalapeños in adobo sauce, are usually added for a mild spiciness. 

The most popular meats are the breaded pork or chicken cutlets known as milanesa, ham, and the boiled cartilage of cow’s feet in vinaigrette called pata. Other meats like chicken, barbacoa and pork in red chile paste can also be ordered, or vegetarians can stick with the cheese. 

The most contentious ingredient is definitely the pápalo, an herb with a very sharp flavor that American chef Aliza Green described as “somewhere between arugula, cilantro, and rue.” 

While he includes pápalo in the traditional ingredients, Chef Muñoz said he personally prefers to forgo the herb “because its flavor is too intense.”

Newlyweds Mauricio Martínez and Diana Cervantes said they also ordered the cemita they shared without pápalo. The couple from Tampico, Tamaulipas, chose Puebla as their honeymoon destination for the prevalence of villages promoted by the Federal Tourism Secretariat’s Magical Towns program in the area.

“But most of all to eat,” said Martínez, who added that the cemita was indeed on their list of culinary musts. 

Ask anyone who knows where to go for a cemita in Puebla and the answer will almost invariably be El As de Oros (The Ace of Coins, a card in the Spanish-suited deck) in the capital’s Mercado de Sabores, or Market of Flavors. 

A basketful of the volcano-shaped cemita bread awaits customers at El As de Oros, in Puebla's Market of Flavors. El As de Oros is almost universally recommended as the place to eat cemitas in Puebla. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Founded by Raquel Marín over 65 years ago, the restaurant is now a sort of cemita empire. Each of her nine children went on to make cemitas and now several businesses owned by them in town with the same name vie for clientele. There are two separately owned locales named El As de Oros in the market alone.

“The other one is owned by my uncle,” said Adriana Miguel, Marín’s granddaughter who inherited her mother Rebeca Quintero’s market stall in 2020. “There’s competition between family members because each one of us has our own distinct touch. And we get an adrenaline rush from it every day.”

At Miguel’s El As de Oros, this unique detail is in her mother's recipe for the chipotle chiles and pickled jalapeños they serve with their cemitas. 

Most of her customers order their cemitas with pápalo, she said, adding that in addition to its singular flavor, the herb has digestive properties and can help the stomach process the mountainous sandwich. 

As for the kleptomaniac canine in Acajete, López, the manager at El Portal, said that the dog “surely prefers them without pápalo.”

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