The new home for Cemita’s Mexican Sandwiches & Tacos is now open in the prepared foods department of the Gowanus Whole Foods, but if you’re hoping to eat a lot of their sandwiches and tacos close to home, you’d better get down there soon, since they’ll only be in the space for three months.
Founder Danny Lyu (pictured above on the right with expert cemita-maker Steven) says that even though they’re busy serving up food at Smorgasburg, Brooklyn Flea, under the Manhattan Bridge, through catering, and also through Handsome Hank’s, when the opportunity to take over this space, formerly home to Yuji Ramen, came up, he couldn’t say no.
“We’re really busy as it is, but something like this you don’t want to turn down,” he says, adding that juggling all of it is right up his alley. “I hate sleeping. I love to work so much — it’s probably my favorite thing. My wife and my kids probably don’t appreciate it as much, though.”
It’s not his first time working with Whole Foods — Cemita’s had a space in their Bowery location in a program with Smorgasburg in 2012 — and though he’d love to stay longer, the fleeting nature of his business so far is something he’s grown somewhat used to.
“We have big issues with attachment syndrome,” he says, but notes that they’re hoping to find a permanent home soon, and is working on securing a space in Queens.
While we’ve got him, you will get a chance to try the traditional Mexican sandwiches known as cemitas, piled high with toppings. What makes Cemita’s namesake sandwiches stand out from others you might have tried, Danny says, is the fact that they’ve got all those ingredients packed in there, including things like papalo — an herb that’s sometimes compared to cilantro — which can be difficult to find.
“I feel like we have all the ingredients that make a sandwich great, but a lot of times other places don’t,” he says. “They won’t put in lettuce or tomatoes, and we put in lettuce, tomatoes, and pickled onions on top of that. I did a lot of research and a lot of tastings. We’ve got all the components.”
Of course, one of the most important elements isn’t inside the sandwich, but is the vehicle that gets all those ingredients into your belly.
“The sandwich is named after the roll!” Danny says with a touch of exasperation when describing other versions where it seems like the roll is an afterthought. “It’s such an important element.”
Cemita’s worked with a baker to develop their roll recipe, though he says, “Admittedly we’re still perfecting it four years later.”
As a conversation he had with a customer soon after this new space opened shows, the roll is definitely a tough thing to master. The woman had just finished eating one of his cemitas in the upstairs area at the Whole Foods. He asked her how she liked it, and she said it was great, and then he asked her what she thought of the bread, and she was a bit more critical.
“She said, ‘Don’t blame yourself, no matter where you go, this is going to be the situation,'” he recalls. “You’re only going to find it perfect made by a grandma in Mexico. So we’re working on it.” He’s hoping to start making bread in-house once he gets the permanent space up and running.
Despite the namesake sandwich, Danny says the tacos have turned out to be their most popular item.
“I started making cemitas because I wanted to show people there’s an alternative to things in tortillas, but people just love tacos, so we offer them,” he says.
Also keep an eye out for rotating specials, including their popular fried chicken cemitas and tacos, which could very likely become part of the regular menu.
Having this new space in Gowanus is an unexpected homecoming of sorts for Danny, who lived nearby for a while before heading to Manhattan, and whose production kitchen used to be on 3rd Avenue and President Street, around the time when Littleneck was just getting to work on opening.
“I’m very familiar with this neighborhood, and I’ve been watching it change,” he says. “There have been some commercial opportunities that I wanted to make happen here but they didn’t go through, but it’s still exciting to see what’s happening here.”
And as someone who drives a lot — stopping to eat if he passes something interesting in the afternoon — and is tapped into the NYC food scene, what’s he discovered in this neighborhood he’s watched change?
“I’m so embarrassed — I went to Checkers,” he says. “I’d never been to a Checkers! I saw it, it had a drive-through, I thought, ‘I’m in a car,’ and so I went. I admit that it was pretty damn good. I enjoyed it.”
But if you’re looking for an alternative to the drive-through burger that he says was quite tasty, his cemitas are another great option in Gowanus — at least for the next three months.