Cemita Milanesa De Pollo: The Ultimate Mexican Chicken Sandwich

Mexico is a handheld food paradise, such that, between stuffing our faces with tacos, burritos, and bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs, many of us outside the country may have missed one of its finest offerings: A delicious iteration of a fried chicken sandwich known as Cemita Milanesa de Pollo. As noted by the Daily Meal, the cemita is a specific variety of "torta," a more widely-known term in the U.S. that merely denotes a sandwich in Mexico.

If you've been to the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York, you may already be familiar with the cemita in general terms, as it is a popular offering at late-night taco trucks positioned along Roosevelt Avenue (via Serious Eats). The somewhat Americanized version of the sandwich comes on a sesame roll, stuffed with classical taco meats such as lengua or carnitas and topped with lettuce, tomato, and avocado. 

Per Serious Eats, this is not too far removed from the Mexican original, but it's definitely different. For the real deal, you've got to go to Puebla.

The Puebla specialty

The city of Puebla, Mexico is synonymous with food, literally. Arthur Lubow, of The New York Times, reveals that the word "poblano," which frequently pops up on menus in the form of poblano chiles or chicken slathered in mole poblano, comes from the name of the city (via the Internet Archive). Writing of his trip to the city, Lubow described the Cemita Milanesa de Pollo as "the revered municipal sandwich," noting its passionate local following.

According to Eater, the name "cemita" actually refers to the kind of bread this sandwich is served on, differentiating it from other types of tortas. It is a round roll made from a dough with lots of eggs, similar to the dough used for brioche, and the top is coated in sesame seeds. Serious Eats notes that many American vendors use a typical soft sesame bun like you'd get with a hamburger, but Puebla-style cemita bread should have a soft crumb with a crunchy exterior — and it should taste just slightly sweet.

What's in a Cemita Milanesa de Pollo?

Now let's talk about what goes on special bread to complete the sandwich. The Daily Meal notes that Cemita Milanesa de Pollos can be made with many different types of meat, but it's typical to use milanesa, meat that's been pounded, breaded, and fried. The meat is topped with queso Oaxaca, shredded by hand, string cheese-style into a pile of fine white strands (via Serious Eats). There are typically onions, as well as jalepeños, which may be pickled or smoked and dried to make chipotle peppers, also included in the torta.

Per Serious Eats, the final key ingredient in an authentic Cemita Milanesa de Pollo is a Mexican herb called papalo. It has small leaves, only 2 to 7 centimeters long, according to Specialty Produce, and the flavor has been likened to the bitter pepperiness of arugula combined with the unique kick of cilantro and mint. In fact, it is sometimes known as "summer cilantro." 

Serious Eats reports that papalo can present a bit of the "soapy" flavor some find in cilantro, so if you are looking to assemble your own cemita at home, you might want to follow Bon Appétit's advice and use a blend of baby arugula and mint instead.