BWW Preview: VILLA CEMITA Brings Taste of Puebla to the East Village
Villa Cemita is a small restaurant with a big mission: In light of the recognition by UNESCO in awarding Cultural Heritage status to Mexican cuisine for its combination of farming, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral customs, owner Alejandra Aco was inspired to share the true flavor of her native Puebla. Alejandra learned to cook at a young age, using recipes that were passed from one generation to the next. As an adult, she also learned to master her mother-in-law's specialties. Now, she manages the kitchen, while her son Omar Cuatzo and daughter Doreli Cuatzo handle the front of the house. While Villa Cemita first started out as a café featuring coffee drinks and sandwiches, it has evolved into a full service restaurant with a lunch, dinner and brunch menu and a cocktail, beer and wine program.
Their goal is to give people a taste of the art and history of Puebla that is behind every dish: The result of the fusion of the culinary traditions of Mexico's colonial period (16th century), outside influences including Spanish, French, and Arabic, and indigenous ingredients that could only come from Puebla. Each influence came with unique ingredients such as spices and chili peppers, as well as special tools and processes that enriched the cuisine of Puebla, making it particularly rich and varied.
Villa Cemita has a bright colorful décor, with a modern/rustic look including specially commissioned paintings by graffiti artist Flore (Christopher Florentino) that reflect the culture and history of the East Village, the family, the restaurant and their background.
The menu includes both traditional Puebla dishes as well as national dishes found throughout Mexico. For a first taste, begin with an appetizer-handmade quesadilla de huitlacoche. You can taste the freshness and subtle flavors of the handcrafted corn tortilla, folded around melted string cheese imported from Oaxaca, with jalapenos and huitlacoche (or corn smut, a type of mushroom that grows on corn). Another specialty is huarache-the same housemade tortilla, but in a flatbread shape, topped with beans, queso fresco, crema, avocado and your choice of roasted chicken tinga or steak.
You'll also find a choice of tacos, like those well known all over Mexico, such as carnitas, vegetable, steak and crispy fish. But the taco arabes have a more interesting story: Created when Lebanese people migrated to Mexico and made their own versions of the local food; instead of their familiar lamb, they spit-roasted pork, marinated it in parsley and Mexican oregano, and wrapped it in a flour (rather than corn) tortilla with housemade chipotle sauce and marinated onions. Taco orientales have the same filling, but with a corn tortilla wrapper. (Fondas (street vendors) in Puebla offer both varieties.) And, for those who have never dared before, Villa Cemita is the place to try chapulin tacos-crispy, spicy pan-fried grasshoppers (also imported from Mexico to ensure they are high quality and clear of pesticides) crunchy and addictively delicious, piled into a corn tortilla with guacamole and pickled onions.
Perhaps the most famous food from Puebla is mole poblano with its uniquely balanced sweet and savory sauce composed of 32 ingredients. Legend has it that the kitchen of the former Santa Rosa Convent was the birthplace of mole poblano in the 16th Century. The sauce is prepared in a process that takes a whole day, toasting, grinding and frying spices, combining chocolate, chili ancho, chile pasilla, almonds, peanuts, cinnamon to make a paste before mixing with chicken stock. The delectable rich brown sauce is served over roasted chicken breast with corn tortilla to soak up every last bit of sauce. Another specialty, offered on special occasions-and a remarkably delicious combination of flavors is chiles en nogadas, poblano peppers stuffed with meat, dried fruits and nuts, topped with walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds-a green, red and white tribute to the colors of the Mexican flag.
The namesake dish, however, is the Super Cemita Poblano, a jumbo layered sandwich that is famous in Puebla. One special aspect is the bread it is made on-resembling brioche, the roll is a fusion between unleavened Jewish bread called "Semita," and hollow Spanish bread called "Bizcocho de Sal," both of which were initially developed for long storage. Onto the cemita roll is piled avocado, housemade marinated chipotles and onions, a very special papalo herb, queso Oaxaca, ham and a choice of breaded chicken or breaded steak. It is a masterpiece of construction and flavor. Lunch combination platters include a choice of tacos, plus rice and beans and chips and salsa for $13. Brunch offers an array of possibilities including chilaquiles-crisp corn tortillas with sunnyside up eggs, queso fresco, crema, avocado, pico de gallo. The cemita sandwich is available for lunch or dinner, but at brunch there's a variation on the classic cemita with black beans, scrambled eggs and chorizo in addition to avocado, papalo and cheese. Other popular brunch dishes include the brunch burrito with scrambled eggs and chorizo, black beans, cheese, homefries or salad. Desserts include chocolate flan, a wonderful rendition of the famous tres leches cake and ever-popular churros.
Along with the expanded menus, Omar has added a comprehensive cocktail list (albeit one that makes great use of wine-based tequila-alternatives, beer and wine while they applied for full liquor license). Excellent libations include margaritas infused with jalapeno and cucumber; mango, and other flavors), pico de paloma - Tequesta, jarrito grapefruit soda, lime, jalapeno; and the beauty elixir composed of Klir Red, Quinn's Cove, strawberry puree, ginger, lemon juice, simple syrup, cucumber slices, and rose sparkling wine. There are also mojitos, such as the house tamarind made with Rhumbero, fresh mint sprigs, lime, club soda, tamarind puree, and agave nectar. The drinks menu also includes classics such as the michelada, bloody mary, sangria, and mimosas. The wines hail from Argentina, Spain, Chile, Italy and California, and the beer list includes Corona, Lagunitas IPA, Black Duck Porter, Stella, Brooklyn Brewery Lager, Pacifico, Dos Equis, Modela and others.
If you are looking for authenticity, Villa Cemita is a must-visit East Village destination.
Villa Cemita is located at 50 Avenue A, between 3rd and 4th streets, 646-964-4528, www.villacemita.com, and is open Mon 4pm-midnight, Tues-Sun 11am-midnight, Brunch Sat-Sun 11am-4pm.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Villa Cemita