Thinking the Mexican sandwich is limited to the widely known torta is like medieval belief the earth is flat. Not only is it dead wrong, there are whole other worlds to explore. Proving that once again, someone got there before us, Mexican sandwiches have expanded to fillings and techniques that leave our proud American sandwiches trailing in the evolutionary chain.
At an enclosed street cart called “Tortas al Fuego,” on a corner in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, a father and his daughter griddle up a typical version of Mexico’s best-known sandwich. The torta is simple and straightforward—grilled ingredients arranged on a bun—and is the basis for many of the other sandwich varieties found throughout Mexico. The tortas of Mexico City are smaller, simpler, more focused on filling than what is generally served in the U.S.
The father builds the torta by slicing open an encased chorizo sausage, emptying out the crumbled meat on the heat. The cheese layer is grilled on its own, directly on the flat-top, a change from the typical, melted-in-sandwich style seen in American sandwiches. As the cheese and chorizo finish up, a buttered roll joins them over heat. The roll gets a smearing of beans before being carefully stacked with the meat and cheese, as well as avocado, tomato, and lettuce. The torta is best enjoyed standing against the counter at the cart, watching the old man grill up the next torta, trying to ignore that the finished sandwich sat atop the same cutting board as the raw sausage.
Follow the line of people at all hours of the day, or look for the five staff members devoted solely to the stringing of cheese, through the Mercado del Carmen, and you’ll find Cemitas Las Poblanitas, home to the quintessential cemita.
While the town of Puebla lays claim to the creation of the torta (also the Mexican traditional sauce molé and another national dish, chilies en nogada), its current sandwich loyalties lie with the cemita. At its most basic, the cemita is distinguished from a torta primarily by the egg-y, sesame-seed speckled bun. It’s not hard to understand why this sandwich is a point of pride; this is a dish that will keep you full for days and cover pretty much all the food groups: fried meat (in the form of a breaded cutlet called ‘milanesa’), lunch meat (a thick layer of sliced ham), cheese (quesillo, the cheese that requires oh-so-many stringers), and of course the cemita-specific bread. There are even a few vegetables, if you count the avocado and a spicy slaw of pickled peppers and onion—though they burn so good, it probably does more harm than health.
Each time someone wants to eat in the room that serves as a restaurant for Antojitos Los Portales, the cook rolls her cart out of the way—boiling pot of oil and all—to let the patron enter, then rolls it back into place.
The oil in her vat is used to fry the small roll on which the Pelona is served, leaving it with a shiny, bare top, presumably the source of its name, which means ‘baldy’ in Spanish.
The fried roll sets the pelona apart from other sandwiches, creating a contrast between the cool, runny cream and the crunchy bread, still warm from the oil. Inside, shredded beef spills over a bed of lettuce and chopped avocado, doused in crema (the ubiquitous, thin Mexican dairy product, vaguely related to sour cream), and your choice of sauce (red or green). The small-ish pelona is considered but a snack on the way to bigger sandwiches, yet its fresh vegetables and fried shell of bun make it a worthy stop along the Mexican sandwich evolutionary path.
The vividly red, nearly glowing color of the chile sauce surrounding chanclas make it a notable choice at many of the snack stands around Puebla. Called ‘antojitos,’ the snacks served here are generally meal-sized and vary from jellied cow’s foot tostada to the brilliant-hued, deceptively simple chanclas.
A pair of sandwiches set afloat in a sea of chili sauce is not the easiest thing to eat while standing on a street just north of the El Bajio market. For chanclas, though, it’s worth it. White bread is sliced and stuffed with shredded beef, avocados and onions. The slightly spicy and blindingly red sauce is ladled over the top of the pair—and they come only in pairs, like the flip-flops for which they’re named. Yes, like the flat masa cake called ‘huaraches,’ chanclas are a member the elite club of Mexican foods whose name means ‘sandals.’
The ingredient list for the pambazo includes at least three ingredients with the word ‘fry’ in them: fried potatoes, fried bread, and refried beans. As can be expected from such a hearty (or heart-stopping) sandwich, it sells well from carts located near bars. This shredded beef version came from the town center of San Juan del Rio, where the locals described it as ‘típico’ of the area.
The mighty pambazo, heavyweight of the Mexican sandwich world, picks up where the chanclas and the pelonas give up. Named for the type of bread used, the pamabazo is dipped into a sauce (made from guajillo chiles), giving it the same flavor-sponge properties as the chancla, and then it’s fried in oil, similar to the pelona. With fillings that read like a college kid on a dining hall bender, it starts with either shredded beef or sliced ham, gets a little extra starch from a sprinkling of home-fry-like potatoes, a liberal smattering of cheese, a thick layer of refried beans, and a barely there, nearly symbolic addition of lettuce. A messy assemblage of ingredients barely capable of holding themselves together, the pambazo is the far end of the sandwich evolutionary chain from the simple, neatly organized torta.