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Nov 23, 2002 03:45 PM

Mixiotes, chileatole, Pueblan cemitas at North/Pulaski; or, papalo as garnish for a great sandwich

  • r

I was out in the North/Pulaski area again around lunchtime today, hoping to get to try the mole verde (pipian) at Asi es Guerrero. I was sidetracked in this enterprise several blocks before my bus got to Pulaski when I caught sight of a "grand opening" sign announcing the new Taqueria Puebla-Mexico.

This turned out to be a wonderful new discovery. It is a simple taqueria which offers unique street food forms that are typical to the central Mexican state of Puebla. The most exciting of these forms is the cemita, a sandwich that is the street-food item that is most closely associated with the city of Puebla (this is their "Italian beef") and which can be found everywhere in the great markets and shopping districts of its central areas.

Taqueria Puebla-Mexico bakes its cemita rolls in house. When I got there at about 11, they had just come out of the oven and I was able to enjoy this round, sesame seed-sprinkled wheat-flour roll piping-hot. This roll is about 5 or 5 1/2" in diameter, is slightly crusty, not overly chewy (there are chewier versions as well as versions with a little "chaff" added for texture) and has a typical little "knot" or "coin" decorating the top. There are four versions on offer, each one of them $4.50: milanesa, jamon, queso and carne enchilada. I was told that eventually, when they are more settled, they will also have a cemita de pata (pig's feet, deboned) to offer. I requested a cemita de milanesa and got a great sandwich topped with avocado, shredded cheese (of the Chihuahua type), chiles en raja (strips of green chile) and several leaves of the papalo.

I have posted previously on papalo (linked below) and find the pungent anise-ey fragrance of this lovely herb unforgettable in this sandwich. Papalo IS the distinguishing feature of the cemita poblana: you cannot have a true cemita without this garnish. There are a couple of Pueblan taquerias in the greater New York area (there is a small Pueblan community there) but the cemitas available are not garnished with papalo, but with the common cilantro. And this makes a whole world of difference!

I enjoyed this sandwich with an order of chileatole (available only on weekends), which is served in a small styrofoam coffee-cup. This is the version of chileatole made with whole grains of corn (and even with whole sections of the ears) and comes across as a kind of delicious spicy corn-green chile soup. Lime segments are offered on the side to cut/balance the fieriness/heat of the chile. Wonderful and very comforting: I can imagine a combination of this "soup" and a cemita as one of my favorite lunches. If North-Pulaski were just not so far away!

When the "top 10 sandwiches" lists (a la ReneG) of all the various posters on this board are finally compared, I would not be surprised if the cemita ended up showing up a few times here and there.

Another Pueblan specialty offered here is the "taco arabe" ($2.50) a legacy of the Lebanese (and I think also Syrian?) community in this state. The wheat-flour tortilla for this taco is handmade of course, since it has to "mimic" the thickness of pita bread. The taco is very simply filled with succulent bits of pork and a smoky chipotle sauce and rolled up (not folded over) like an extra fat cigar, the way they roll up the falafel sandwiches at Al-Khyam on Kedzie. Delightful!

The other tacos on offer here are served on corn-tortilla. At the moment, they are still working out the kinks on their masa and are using store-bought tortillas, but they will soon be offering handmade as well. The other tacos (generally $1.50 each) are: al pastor, carne asada, orientales (I don't know what this is), sesos and cecina.

They have tortas as well, and quesadillas (tinga, chicharron or all-queso, $2.50). On weekends, they have the chileatole as well as mixiotes, one of the most famous of Mexican regional dishes. This is a kind of barbacoa de chivo, but the meat is long-simmered in a pot lined with maguey leaves. The leaves of this cactus/century plant add its unmistakeable aroma to the final dish. The mixiotes was not ready yet at 11 today so I intend to go back tomorrow to try it.


About 2 months ago, VI asked where in Chicago one could find norteno cooking. This question surprised me completely, bec norteno cooking IS the basis of what we call Mexican-American food and can be found everywhere. Nuevo Leon is norteno, several other places around feature norteno or a kind of degraded norteno. In the North-Pulaski neighborhood, there are two norteno restaurants: one Zacatecan and one called Santiago Papasquiaro which is a town in Durango. The Zacatecan menu seems to be generic taqueria fare but I didn't have the time to ask about unlisted specials and who knows, maybe they have something regional hidden away. Santiago Papasquiaro's menu is much more extensive and worth examining carefully.

Birria Huentitan is tapatia, and features that great pride of tapatia (i.e. Guadalajaran) cuisine. The carniceria/supermercado whose name I could not remember earlier is called Jimenez and the taqueria inside features guisados (stews) in a steam table. The tamale specialist I mentioned earlier is called Chilo's La Casa del Tamal and offers nothing more than tamales (7 types) and champurrado/atole.

There is also a little Colombian cafe called Manantial de Vida coffee shop, with a small selection of Colombian sweets (sweet arepas etc, not made in-house), typical Colombian drinks (licuados of maracuja etc, kumis which is a yogurt drink) and a few tables to enjoy your "100% Colombian" coffee. I bought a very heavy tamale which I will eat tonight or tomorrow: I was told that this is a tamale typical of the area of Tolima, although there are no huge regional variations among the tamales of Colombia. Colombian tamales, according to the owner, are typified with a banana-leaf wrapping, a mixture of diff meats (beef, chicken, pork) and she refused to describe the rest of the stuffing as she wanted me to leave me a surprise. They also have the corn-husk-wrapped "envueltos". They have something similar to the Ecuadorian humita and will recognize but do not use this word. Finally, she told me that the majority of the Colombians in Chicago are from Medellin and Cali and are mostly clustered around Lincoln (in the area of Pueblo Viejo and Las Tablas).

There is also a large, funky second-hand/thrift store in this neighborhood.


Manantial de Vida Coffee Shop
4107 W. North
Tel: (773) 276-7751

Birria Huentitan
4019 W. North
Tel: (773) 276-0768

Chilo's La Casa del Tamal
4213 W. North
Tel: (773) 269-2052

Taqueria Puebla-Mexico
3625 W. North
Tel: (773) 772-8435
This is at Monticello, south side of North Ave, a bit apart from the main North-Pulaski strip. Monticello is about 4 blocks or so east of Pulaski.


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  1. (Edit)
    Sorry, the last paragraph is a little unclear/needs a little edit.

    Re: envueltos of Colombia/Ecuadorian humitas
    I meant the Colombians call their corn-husk wrapped tamales "envueltos". I did not mean that Manantial de Vida offers it.

    Also the sentence "They have something similar to the Ecuadorian humita...". By "they", I meant the Colombians, not this shop.

    Also the Colombians in Chicago are from Medellin, Cali AND Bogota as well. Missed that last city.

    I will report on the tamal tolimense later when I eat it.

    I am wondering what "100% Colombian" at a Colombian cafe is like. Doesn't big monster Starbucks muscle its way into buying up all the good stuff? Have to give it a try some day and sleuth around re source of this coffee.

    There is also a very busy taqueria called Taconazo a few steps from Asi es Guerrero. Seems to be greasy, generic Mexican. But who knows.

    Re: canned abalone
    There is also a mariscos place-cum-fishmonger on the north side of North. It turned out to be Ecuadorian-run. The owner's brother owns a fish distributing company called Campeche seafoods. They have a small range of seafood items to eat-in: seafood cocktails (Vuelve a la vida and so on) might be interesting to try. The fish case doesn't look that promising. The only abulon (abalone) they have is from a can, it's Mexican, and distributed by a California company. It's not true-abalone but imitation abalone made from squid. I should have jotted down the brand; I have forgotten the name.

    Re: cemita
    Supposedly the word comes from acemite (which refers to the "husk" of wheat). Thus, the versions with a little "roughage" (bits of chaff) added in.

    Re: the earlier papalo post
    It was funny to reread that. It was one of my earliest posts on this board. So I have been posting for 4 months now (including the month away). How time flies!

    Now, I can't believe that no one has patted my back yet for being so conscientious of late about posting all the addresses and telephones ;)


    5 Replies
    1. re: RST

      Here's a big pat on the back for a terrific post. I enjoy all of your posts--I've learned so much. I've traveled extensively all over Mexico for the last 30 years, and have been cooking out of Diana Kennedy since she published her first book.

      1. re: RST

        Well, I WAS going to wax poetic about the thirteen ways of looking at a tamal tolimense but Hammond beat me to the idea ;) so I will simply have to restrict myself to a dour, straightforward description. ;)

        Excellent tamal! It LOOKS like a Oaxacan tamal: banana-leaf-wrapped, heavy as a brick, about-oh-5 1/2 inch square in size. My guess is that this baby is as heavy as 4 lbs. A whole chicken drumstick is buried diagonally within the masa, bisecting the tamal into two triangles. Large chunks of beef could be found on one side and chunks of pork on the other. There are also large wedges of potatoes and carrot. There are no other "frills", such as the olives, raisins and other goodies found in a Nicaraguan nacatamal. This is simple, rustic and very fulfilling.

        As noted in the previous post, the owner of Manantial de Vida said there are no huge stylistic variations among the tamales of different regions in Colombia, although this specific tamal reflects the way it would be made in the area of Tolima.


        I was back today to try the mixiotes. Delicious! The mixiotes are wrapped/cooked within aluminum foil packets with broad sheets of maguey "parchment" lining the foil interior. A small-scale homemade version would just use the sheets of fiber stripped off maguey leaves to form the little "mixiote" bags but I guess that would be too messy and the foil serves as a kind of restaurant expedient. In my tiny bag, I found one tiny mouthful of tender aromatic goat, cooked with a kind of red chile paste/sauce (D Kennedy lists guajillo and pasilla as principal chiles for her version) and 2 whole avocado leaves. My only complaint is that the serving is way too small and simply not enough for a meal even with tortillas and frijoles (cooked with chunky bits of chorizo, very intriguingly similar to many versions of our American meat-and-bean chili) served on the side. The order is only $4.50 but after the bones are picked off there is just not enough meat left to enjoy. The next time I visit, I will suggest to the owner that they double the portion and raise the price to $7-8 for an order.


        I had a nice chat with the manager of this new taqueria about cemitas. I was trying to probe the limits of possible variations to this form. He agreed that the crust is often lighter-colored than on the rolls found here. He drew a blank when I explained that cemita is said to derive from acemite and said that he always thought it derived from semita (seeds), referring to the sesame seeds on the rolls. He said that instead of their chile en raja, there is another variation that uses whole chipotle peppers instead as condiment. But these are not the chipotle used for salsas/cooking but a special homemade kind that is slightly sweetened (!!!) with piloncillo (brown unrefined sugar). These chipotle should be slightly "dulzon".

        (At any rate, they offer 3 salsas on the table, one of which is a killer-chipotle salsa. The other two are green and guajillo.)


        Re: papalo
        As I noted in the earlier post, "papalo" is nahuatl for butterfly. And since the full name of Puebla is Puebla de los Angeles (Puebla of the Angels), there are innumerable puns/wordplays to be found in Pueblan local sayings, rhymes, poems etc that revolve around the double meaning of papalo: the (butterfly) wings of the angels, the herb of (the city) of angels etc. So the papalo herb is indispensable to the cemita poblana in a symbolic way as well.

        Re: Cemita de pata
        I suggested above that it may be deboned pig's feet. But D Kennedy says it is "jellied calf's-foot".

        Re: Tacos orientales
        I asked about this. It is the same filling as the taco arabe, but uses a corn tortilla instead of the pita-like wheat-flour tortilla.


        A couple of additional sightings from the North-Pulaski area. There is another one of those Maxwell St. "polish" places on one of the corners. There is a Puerto-Rican + Guatemalan restaurant + bakery called Sabor Latino with a menu that is far more extensive than the regular Puerto-Rican mom-and-pop. They have things like Guatemalan tamales listed among the fritura items (the whole range: bacalaito, pionono and so on). In addition, hidden away, with a sign that is nearly invisible, a smart-looking (polished hard-wood floors, upmarket decor) "Bistro Italiano" called Guys offering a range of pastas, pizzas, chicken/ribs/seafood/burgers.


        Who would have thought that such a non-descript looking part of town could be hiding so much?


        In the future, when we know these places a lot better, it might be possible to recommend to adventurous visitors (as one single circuit-tour) a loop combining chow places in Wicker Park/Bucktown with a detour to this area. It's a direct, not unpleasant ride on the North Ave bus from the Coyote building (North/Milwaukee/Damen) corner.


        Sabor Latino
        3810 W. North Ave
        (773) 227-5254
        9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

        Guys/Bistro Italiano
        3948 W. North Ave
        (773) 772-1535
        "Late night" (no actual closing hour listed)
        Delivery from 11 a.m.

        1. re: RST

          " Who would have thought that such a non-descript
          looking part of town could be hiding so much?"
          RST, please get some perspective. i find it rather insulting to the actual people who live in this 'non-descript' part of town, who already know and eat in these taquerias you are just discovering. you sound a tad like columbus thinking the new world didnt exist till he discovered it.

          1. re: joan


            Webster's Third New Intl Dictionary:
            Non-descript: 1.) (archaic) not hitherto described, 2.) lacking distinguishing characteristics or a distinctive character: belonging or appearing to belong to no particular class or kind; not easily described, i.e. unclassifiable

            I used this word in the most correct and most neutral sense. There was nothing defamatory about it. Those who follow all my posts know what love and what energy I lavish on such places, giving my best to tease out their glorious specificity and individuality within the context of a city that prefers to lump it all together as one faceless unknown.

            I think that you were very cruel and unfair with this barb.


            Re: Columbus
            No, not like Columbus. More with Cortez' wide-eyed sense of wonder in Keats' sonnet. The awe I experience when I encounter a hitherto-undiscovered traditional foodway in our city is expressed in these verses:

            Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
            When a new planet swims into his ken;
            Or like stout Cortez when with his eagle eyes
            He star'd at the Pacific-and all his men
            Look'd at each other with a wild surmise-
            Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


            1. re: RST

              richard, i'm sorry i upset you. i wasnt objecting to your use of the term 'non-descript', but rather to the idea that all that culinary bounty was 'hiding' in the neighborhood. i was trying to point out that the people in the area are already aware of the restaurants you were writing about. i wasnt trying to be cruel. i enjoy your posts as much as anyone and if i think your enthusiasm this particular time went a little overboard, i should have kept it to myself. i sincerely apologize, joan

      2. v
        Vital Information

        Like the time we both hit Milwaukee Ave. on the same afternoon, VI and RST nearly ran into each other on saturday.

        I had a rare sole outing, and I decided for pozole verde. I was heading for Asi es Guerrero, but since I was on Pulaski northbound, I came accross San Juan first. Better? Now, like dim sum, I do not think I can compare various pozoles unless I am really eating them side by side. Plus, this time I went for green (of course!), whereas my previous pozole had been red. I liked it though.

        This was a big steaming bowl, as much soup as a vehicle for hominy. It also seemed a bit "cleaner" tasting than last time, like the meats were not quite as, er authentic if you know what I mean parts wise. The green pozole also possesses a much more subtle flavor. Jalepeno's contribute to the color, but it is a quiet heat. All the usual stuff comes with: tostadas, chicharron, onion, lime. On the table sat two shakers, a red chili mix and an oregano nearly the strength of pinesol. I played with all the condiments, I do not if I had more than two spoonfuls that were the same. Whole serrano chilis resting on salt also stood by on the table, but I was too chicken to use them.

        San Juan reinforces the Guerrero heritage with plenty of Acupulco wall paintings include the de riguer cliff divers. The menu adds a few more regional specialities including the common accompaniment to pozole, tostada de patita de puerco.

        I liked San Juan a lot, but was most convinced when I was leaving and had a chance to watch them cook. A little window exists near the back table that lets you see the process. For the red pozole, the "chef" worked a sackful of re-hydrated red chilis into a bucket. This brew of upmost molarity might actually be the nirvana sought by Ultimo and Zim (if they could just eat this chili sluice). A starter for green pozole also stood in sight. Whole garlics, jalepenos and tomatillo's seemed the only ingredients, no pumpkin seeds.

        I noticed the Taqueria Puebla as well this weekend. Thanks for the early review. Odd that a taco arabe contains pork! The casa de tamal also looks worth a visit soon. The supermarket Jimenez has several branches around town, not just North Avenue. For instance I am pretty sure one is on Clark St. near Dona Lois.

        Finally, why the insult on looking for "real" norteno cuisine. I will make the same point/analogy that I made way back, which seems to have been ignored. That is, think of norteno cucina in the same vein as Cantonese. Yes, there are early bastardized versions, but that does not mean that the real thing is also bastardized, and the real thing can be highy valued on its own merits. I believe anyone who ate at Polo got some idea that home cooking in Monterrey, Mexico is nothing like early Tex-Mex. The flour tortillas offered sure did not taste like anything served at Chipotle. Weak put-downs do not find us any place serving genuine roasted goat (cabrito asadao) even if I do not expect that when we find it, it will be cooked in a pit.

        So, RST, is North Pulaski your 3100 block of N. Central?


        San Juan Resturant y Pozoleria
        1523 N. Pulsaski
        Chicago, IL
        (open until 2am sun-thur/24 hrs on fri and sat!!! for those planning the next chowathon)


        2 Replies
        1. re: Vital Information

          Re: ...VI and RST nearly ran into each other on Sat
          Well, I was trying to avoid you, you know ;) so I steered clear away from your scent ;)

          Re: the pozole verde of Pozoleria San Juan
          I had a look at a bowl of this when I peeked in. It IS much "soupier/brothier" than Asi es Guerrero's. Asi E G's small portion (which is the one I had) had just enough liquid in it to accompany each mouthful of "matter": no more! The balance is quite perfect. Asi E G's definitely has pipian. I cannot speak for San Juan's.

          Re: parts of meat
          Asi E G uses lean cubes of pork. No gristle. No offal. San Juan's also looks pretty straightforward. Did you have prok or chicken?

          Re: pork on taco arabe
          One would think that lamb should be used. But then al pastor (which is also a Lebanese/Syrian influence) is also made with pork.

          Re: insult on norteno
          No, I knew what you were looking for/thinking of precisely, which is why I listed the Zacatecan place and the place with the name of a Durango town for you. No insults. And yes, I agree that "true" norteno is worth searching out: even when we know that it is so much simpler and more one-dimensional. And norteno has had its day in the sun, it's really time for it to make way in the world's eyes for the greater, richer, more glorious cuisines of the heartland.

          Re: Polo
          I couldn't make it last week. So, those folks are from Monterrey?!

          Re: North-Pulaski being my 3100 N.
          Well, you know I am ETERNALLY devoted to Albany Park.


          1. re: RST
            Vital Information

            >Re: parts of meat
            >Asi E G uses lean cubes of pork. No gristle. No offal. San Juan's also looks pretty straightforward. Did you have prok or chicken?

            It has been a while since I ate at Asi es Guererro, but my contemporaneous report clearly confirms what my memory also recalls, and that is, the meat in the pozole was from an assortment of pig parts. Let's just call it authenitic!

            Plus, I wonder if it is a bit like carnitas, where they can fish around and offer various cuts of meats based on the desire of the customer.


        2. The Atole vendor was back at the corner of Pratt and Clark this morning, looked like he was freezing but doing a good business. That corner by the McDonalds seems to be a pickup point for Mexican day laborers who patronize the atole/tamale stand. We get the tamales regularly, if I'm not running late next week I'm trying the atole, and will post the results. RST, what flavors am I looking for in an authentic atole? I've had some from the vendor up the street, but it's the only atole I've tried so far.