DES MOINES — The sandwiches at Cemitas Tepeaca 2 are not dainty. They are not delicate. They are not elegant. They are majestic — hulking, unruly fellows, as wide as a salad plate and as fat as a dictionary.
Each sandwich — there are nine varieties — comes on a golden, crackly roll, spackled with sesame seeds, round, but pleasantly irregular. The housemade roll, a cemita, is the first in a cascade of eponyms; the restaurant is named for the sandwich, the sandwich is named for the roll. It’s the roll, hard and round instead of soft and oblong, that distinguishes the cemita from other more commonly seen sandwiches, such as tortas.
Cemitas ($10.99) come stuffed with sliced avocado (it seems like each sandwich has a whole avocado in it), quarter-inch planks of queso fresco and slivers of white onion. You choose an element of heat, chipotles in adobo sauce or pickled jalapeños, and a meat.
There are grilled options, the meat broad and thin, salty and quickly charred. There are a couple of cold-cut options and a pulled-pork number.
But the standouts are the milanesas, fried cutlets brought to South and Central America by Italian immigrants a century ago. Available in pork, chicken or beef, each is pounded thin as a pencil, breaded and fried. They emerge crisp and bronzed, overflowing their rolls with a craggy abundance.
I’m partial to the cemita de milanesa de puerco (the entire pictogram menu is in Spanish). The pork cutlet is warm and crisp. Its heat softens the two layers of queso fresco pressed on either side of it. Avocado brings creamy contrast; onion brightness; pickled jalapeño an acid zing. Wash it down with your preferred bottle of Jarritos. It’s a modest symphony.
Pedro Hernandez, 32, opened Cemitas Tepeaca 2 in a mini strip-mall, between a motel and a hair salon, on Highway 99 in Des Moines in 2016. As the name suggests, it’s the sister restaurant of Cemitas Tepeaca, in Everett, which his family opened in 2009. Hernandez’s sister, Rosa, runs the Everett location, his mother and another sister staff the younger restaurant in Des Moines.
Hernandez arrived here 22 years ago and, after finishing high school, worked in a Wallingford sushi restaurant for eight years, beginning as a dishwasher and working his way up to raw fish.
His family comes from Tepeaca, a small city in the Mexican state of Puebla, just east of Mexico City.
When they decided to open their first restaurant, they wanted it to reflect where they came from.
“When you open a Mexican restaurant, you say, ‘let’s sell tacos, let’s sell burritos, steak or beef,’ ” Hernandez said. “Every Mexican restaurants sells that. So we said, let’s do something else, let’s make our traditional, so that people know we are from Puebla.”
They make about 70 rolls each weekday morning at the Des Moines location, and closer to 100 on weekends.
“It’s the bread, we make it homemade,” Hernandez said. “It’s different than other sandwiches. Bread from Mexico is more soft, this is more crunchy. When you eat it, you spread your mouth to eat it, you feel the bread, hard and crunchy.”
They’ve got a full menu, soups, burritos, flautas and more, but, Hernandez said, most people come for the cemitas.
On one visit, I saw a gorgeous whole fried fish leave the kitchen, browned and glistening, headed to another table. I didn’t try it, alas. We’d already ordered four cemitas. The restaurant, after all, is named for them.
Cemitas Tepeaca 2, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 21624 Pacific Highway S., Des Moines; 206-878-8202
Cemitas Tepeaca, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 11632 Evergreen Way, Everett; 425-263-8777