When I ask my students what I should do in Tehuacán, everyone says the same. “Go to Puebla.” That’s right. “There’s nothing to do here,” they say. “Go to Puebla and eat a cemita.”
Puebla is a short 2-hour bus ride north of Tehuacán. It’s is the capital and largest city in Mexico’s central state of the same name. Forget New York, New York. There’s an old-school hot spot and it’s Puebla, Puebla. It boasts 1.4 million people (as opposed to lil’ Tehuacán’s 248 thousand), and a food scene worth visiting.
So go to Puebla I did. I even ate a cemita. The tricky thing with wanting to try everything but also being a vegetarian is, well, that you can’t. Servers laugh when I order enchiladas sin carne or tortas sin jamon or tostadas sin pollo. It’s ok, I’ve worked in a few restaurants, I get it. Menu alterations are easy if not irritating, but part of the job. Cemitas come with any meat you’d like– even milanesa, which brings me back to my meals in Argentina, where the thin, breaded, and fried cuts of red meat or chicken crowded every household and restaurante. But to order it with all the fixings and without the central component sounds like a mess of crass confusion. Cemita sin carne? Sin nada? The joke doesn’t seem to get old.
A cemita is a sandiwch, no matter which way you slice it. A fluffy sesame-seed bun cut in half and piled with lettuce, onion, avocado, sweet chipotle peppers or pickled jalapeños, and heaps of stringy quesillo, a thick white queso that peels apart like string cheese. The meat’s supposed to go somewhere in the middle. But if you ask politely, someone’s always willing to omit it and maybe bring you a corona. But you’ll have to ask twice for the lime.
Most of the traditional foods of la ciudad de puebla can be found throughout the larger state — like mole, a dark, savory, chocolately sauce used to flavor meats, and elote, an ear of corn coated in butter and cheese. It was a Spanish colony, and the architecture shows. The barrio del artista lies on the city’s northeast side, where painters sit in the sun and vendors sell ceramicas. The street performers range from traditional mariachi to hipsters with horse masks. And on a lazy Sunday, crowds gradually drift home for a late-afternoon siesta.
Before it’s to late, while the five o’clock sun washes the tangerine color from the colonial-era walls, it’s probably time for a second sip of something cold. There’ll be another cerveza available at the very next cocina before it’s too late to catch a bus home. I have a feeling I’ll be back for more.