Cemitas and Pueblan Specialties at La Poblana Lonchera (East Oakland)
Dateline: Saturday, December 15, 2012 --- Headed to an errand in East Oakland, I noticed this orange-painted taco truck (lonchera) named “La Poblana” parked behind a fence on the east side of International Blvd near 78th and made a mental note to circle back on my return.
Visions of chiles en nogada and mole poblano possibilities danced in my head on the drive back. But even better, the menu includes CEMITAS POBLANAS!!!
Also quesadillas de flor de calabaza o huitlacoche, and fresh masa antojitos such as sopes, as well as standard taco truck fare.
Never having spotted a Pueblan cemita north of Ventura, naturally I had some skepticism. I’ve asked many for them locally and the same problem turns up each time . . . lack of supply for the proper bread. I asked the truck owner if he would please show me the bread first. He produced a sesame seeded domed roll encased in cling wrap and explained that he brings the bread in from Los Angeles. Hurrah, it looked just like the golden-brown brioche-like cemita rolls I’ve had in LA albeit not as fresh. He added that he uses the real Quesillo Oaxaca too.
Standing next to me in front of the truck, one of his countrymen was finishing up a sample plate of food and gave it the stamp of approval. The man said that this was his first time too and that he had driven over from San Francisco when he heard about this truck from his Pueblan relatives. He followed up with a huge order to take home with him.
I chose a Cemita Milanesa (breaded beef cutlet), $10, with everything. There was a brief delay until the owner’s wife arrived with the day’s bread delivery. This gave me more time to chat up the owner, who is completely fluent in English. He said that he offers a daily special plate, such as mole de hoy, chiles en nogada or barbacoa, when he has time to extra cooking. I did quiz him about his barbacoa prep and can say that he makes it the traditional way. At this point can’t recall if he uses chivo or borrego.
While we waited, he offered me a complimentary Chalupa in exchange for my patience. This was quite unlike the cupped fresh masa boats I’ve had elsewhere. Layered handmade corn tortillas griddled with tomatillo-based salsa verde were interspersed with fresh white cheese, more akin to Sonoran style enchiladas. On the side, a perfectly grilled slab of fresh and juicy nopal (cactus) and a whole pickled jalapeño.
My cemita was packed to go and I had to drive 1.5 hours before enjoying it. Here’s what it looked like mummified in plastic wrap.
Still somewhat warm when I reached my destination, I did not heat it further as I was concerned about further drying out the bread. Here’s the unpacked version.
The sesame bread was toasted on the cut edge and on the outside too. Smeared with refritos, then layered with the milanesa, onion, wispy quesillo, and lots of avocado. The owner had apologized that papalo, the signature herb of this sandwich, was not available this time of year. I had said, “yes”, when asked if I wanted chipotle. And chipotles I got, four chile pepper halves, carefully laid out in each quadrant and far more firepower than I could handle. This was quite a contrast to the anemic chipotle sauce on the cemitas I’ve had in LA. While the milanesa had softened from steaming, the beef was well-pounded and tender and the breading, tasty. Each bite was delicious, but the stale firmness of the bread was noticeable. I wonder if eating it immediately after resuscitation on the plancha might make a difference.
I had balked at the tariff for this sandwich, but the quality is definitely there along with the traditional taste and garnishes. The quesillo tastes better than any domestic brands I’ve had, so likely is really from Oaxaca. On the side, a small container of salsa verde, some pickled onions, carrots and peppers, another slab of griddled fresh nopal that seems to be this truck’s signature, half a fresh habanero pepper, and a genuine grilled cebollita, the small sweet bulb onion from Mexico (not the scallions other trucks serve). I would order this again, but will wait a couple months until papalo is available again. And I’d consume it on the spot.
La Poblana Lonchera is here every day and stays open until 3AM Saturday and Sunday mornings. It shares the vacant lot next to Dave’s Muffler (7744 International Blvd) with a car wash service and has off-street parking in the back. The yellow “car wash” sidewalk signs are easy to spot. The owner recommended calling in advance to check on daily specials or to place large orders, 510-277-6091.
History of Cemitas