Early Sandwich of the Week this week because I took a break from them on vacation, because I ate an excellent sandwich last night, and to coincide with Hall of Fame balloting results.
The sandwich: Cemita al Pastor from Tulcingo del Valle, 47th St. and 10th Ave. in Manhattan.
The construction: Seasoned pork, pineapple, Oaxaca cheese, refried beans, papalo and chipotle sauce on a sesame-seed bun.
Important background information: Tulcingo del Valle spans two storefronts on 10th. The north half, which I only saw because I needed to use the bathroom, is a clean, cozily lit restauranty-looking restaurant. The south half, where I ate, clearly used to be a deli and still kind of is. It has table service, but it still has a refrigerator running the length of one wall in the Manhattan deli style. It even has some refrigerator sections with sliding doors and some with those weird dangly clear plastic things that I’ve never seen anywhere but delis in New York city.
What it looks like:
How it tastes: Good. The thick shreds of pork are moist, fatty and flavorful. There is enough pork to fully cover the bun, it’s hardly overstuffed. The bread was flaky on the outside and absorbent enough on the inside to soak up the sandwich’s delicious mix of sauces, juices and greases but maintain its structural integrity.
Oaxacan cheese, it turns out, is awfully similar to (the same as?) queso blanco I used to buy in the supermarket in Prospect Heights. For the uninitiated, it’s similar in flavor and texture to mozzarella, only perhaps a bit chewier — which worked on the sandwich.
The avocado was soft, ripe and delicious, and, along with the cheese, added a creamy quality to the sandwich. I thought the papalo was cilantro until I reread the Grub Street Top 101 Sandwiches post this morning. It has a sharp, clean bite that went well with the remarkable spiciness of the chipotle sauce.
About that: Whoa nelly. I generally enjoy spicy food. I order my wings hot or extra hot and I pour Cholula on many of my lunches. Actually, when the waitress dropped off my sandwich at Tulcingo Del Valle and walked away, I briefly regretted not remembering to ask for hot sauce.
But there was no shortage of heat on this sandwich. The plentiful chipotle sauce was hearty, smoky and fiery hot, and tasted less like a vinegary Tabasco-style sauce and more like eating an actual fire. Still a delicious wood-burning fire, mind you, but perhaps a bit painful. This sandwich might have actually been a touch too spicy. By the time I got to the second half of the thing, my mouth, throat and esophagus were burning.
I didn’t even know there was pineapple in the sandwich until I revisited the Grub Street post. I believe that it might have been on there because there was a mess of ingredients and an explosion of delicious flavors in this sandwich, but it was hard to distinguish any pineapples with the eye or taste buds.
What it’s worth: The Cemita al Pastor and a soda cost me $10 plus tip. Plus it was about a 20-minute walk there from my office and a half hour from the restaurant to Grand Central to get home. I always enjoy a good post-sandwich stroll, though.
How it rates: If the Sandwich Hall of Fame were determined by a group of voters instead of my own whims, I imagine the Cemita al Pastor would not immediately earn entry. Yeah, it had some great elements, but ultimately that chipotle sauce hurts its case by physically hurting the consumer.
But then people who really like spicy food will say, “Certainly the Cemita al Pastor deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Look at the inspired, delicious ingredients! And that spiciness is part of what makes it so good.”
And then some people will be all, “Yeah, you know what? You’re right. Come to think of it, before the pain set in, that was a really delicious sandwich.”
But others will be like, “What? Don’t let them talk you into it; that sandwich was too spicy! No sandwich should be too spicy to finish. Look at the bacon cheddar burger from Bill’s Bar and Burger — now that’s a Hall of Famer! Sure, perhaps it’s not the most original sandwich in the world, but it’s consistently very good and always a joy to eat.”
And then spiceheads and their sympathizers in this case will say, “A good bacon cheeseburger that’s not even Top 5 in the city for the Hall of Fame? Your standards are all wrong and you are stupid.”
And then the remaining people hellbent on keeping the Cemita al Pastor out of the Sandwich Hall of Fame will say, “I’m stupid? You’re the cretin with an indelicate palate!”
And then further arguing and more heated name-calling will continue until most people ultimately realize the Cemita al Pastor is probably a deserving hall of famer. 91 out of 100.