If you find yourself anywhere near Victory Blvd in Van Nuys in the upcoming future — you're taking a trip to Costco, perhaps, or maybe over at the Van Nuys courthouse fighting that parking ticket — do yourself a favor and get yourself a fat, toasted, stuffed-to-the-gills cemita poblana from Cemitas Don Adrian in the mini-mall on the corner of Victory and Kester.
First point of order: a brief explainer of the name "cemita poblana." Poblana refers to Puebla, a city to the southeast of Mexico City to which we owe thanks for many of our favorite Mexican dishes (the mole poblano and chiles en nogada at Bell's legendary Casita Mexicana are two examples).
The cemita is one of the few sandwiches in existence that takes its name from what is, in an empirical sense, the most minor detail of the sandwich itself: the sesame seeds on the bun. "Cemita" is, etymologically, derived from the archaic Spanish word "acemite," which refers to the outside layer of a seed or grain. What would the success of the Big Mac had been if it had been named after that seemingly minor aspect?
The seeds, though, are really what make the bread on cemita poblana. And the bread is, as every sandwich enthusiast knows, what makes the sandwich. The buns at Cemitas Don Adrian are wonderful — nicely browned and crunchy on the outside, soft, white and chewy on the inside without being wimpy or insipid. The seeds are essential, as they add a coarseness and nuttiness that magnifies the toasted taste of the bun.
The sandwiches at Cemitas Don Adrian are massive — diametrically as big as a 16-inch softball. One will easily suffice for a meal and two could probably feed three people. And at $5.64, it might be one of the best bang-for-your-buck sandwiches in the city (Most of the sandwiches are curiously priced at $5.64. It's a cute idiosyncrasy of the place. I'm sure they have their reasons for pricing the way they do, but it didn't make sense for rounding purposes, as $5.64 plus sales tax came out to $6.14 for my sandwiches).
I tried two cemitas with beef fillings: the number 7, milanesa de res, and the number 8, cecina asada. The milanesa features strips of thinly pounded beef that are breaded and deep fried. The meat was tender and pliable, with a light crumb coating that wasn't too greasy. It tasted great, but the cecina asada, described as "cured steak" on the menu, blew it out of the water.
The cecina, which in this case is salted, marinated beef, is divinely rich, like it's been sitting in its own juices for hours on end. The tender, savory meat is chopped finely and piled onto the perfectly toasted rolls along with cilantro, cheese, jalapeños, and red onion. Imagine a juicy carne asada taco, but in sandwich form, and you're close to approximating the taste of this sandwich.
Sandwiches come with a couple of choices to make: they all come with milky-white panela cheese, the mild, silken Mexican cheese that resembles feta or Indian paneer. For exactly $2.10 extra, however (these strange prices, again!), you can add a fistful of supernaturally delicate Oaxacan string cheese. I recommend that you do. While it's expensive, at least relative to the rest of the sandwich, it adds a beautiful snappiness that complements the other, more piquant, aspects of the sandwich.
Your next choice comes down to pickled jalapeños or red, smoky, burns-so-good chipotle sauce. I tried both, and a case can be made for either. The jalapeño provides a more visceral, immediate burn on the tongue; the smoldering chipotle hits the back of the throat like a cigarette, and lingers. Choice of herbs is the final decision: cilantro or the less common papalo. Papalo, sometimes called "summer cilantro," is a bit like your typical coriander, but with the pungent bitterness of arugula or dandelion. It's worth trying, but you might want to get it on the side and try a nibble before you put it on your precious cemita.
Cemitas Don Adrian is tiny — with only three tables inside, be prepared to make friends and share your table. There are three dozen sandwiches on the menu, all inexpensive. Other excellent cemitas include the barbacoa (lamb) and the pollo adobado, chicken that is bathed in an intense marinade of chili pepper and achiote, a robust, reddish-orange seed that gives the meat brilliant coloring. When I asked the woman taking orders if she could recommend her favorite sandwich for me, she hemmed and hawed for a full 30 seconds before saying, "I can't decide. They're all good," and smiling. That's a good sign.
Cemitas Don Adrian is located at 14902 Victory Blvd. in Van Nuys (at Kester). It is open Monday through Saturda from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.