At El Chingon, the Cemita Is King
After 20-plus years of working for other people, veteran baker Juan Carlos Aparicio is making Pueblan food on his terms. The results are outstanding.
This story of El Chingon starts in Mexico 40-some years ago. So stick with me a minute, okay?
Mexico, 40-some years ago, was where chef Juan Carlos Aparicio first learned to cook — at his mother’s hip, in their kitchen in San Mateo Ozolco.
It starts, too, in New York City, 1994, at a Greek bakery where Aparicio got his first job after coming to the United States. It starts in 1999, in Philly, with a gig doing pastry work for Stephen Starr at Buddakan. Then, after that, working the line for Michael Schulson, Shola Olunloyo and Marc Vetri. Then back to bread — his talent, his passion — when Starr first opened Parc in 2008 and Aparicio was head baker. He created the bread program there that people (lots of people) raved about. Those baguettes that put Parc on the map? Those were his darlings. His creations.
By the time he was done, Aparicio would spend more than two decades working for other people. Four years ago, he decided it was time to open his own place. He bought a building with his brothers-in-law at 10th and Cross in South Philly, just a block off East Passyunk, and started making plans. He would focus on Pueblan food. Something fun that leaned into his strengths and the things he knew best. The cemita.
The Pueblan sandwich shows off the skills of a dough master as much as it does the cooks in the kitchen assembling the fillings. Perfect for Aparicio, the veteran baker, the guy from Puebla who made his name with a French baguette at a Philly bistro whose name you can barely say without “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” playing in your head. Aparicio’s cemitas get a long rise. They’re made with two kinds of flour and a little egg, to give them texture and some spring. The result is a roll that’s crisp outside, a little dense, soft and slightly sweet and topped with sesame seeds.
El Chingon means tough guy, means cool guy, meaning a dude who can get the job done. Aparicio spent years perfecting his baking techniques. And man, are Aparicio’s cemitas a marvel. The rolls are sturdy but flatten beautifully and are springy and soft when you tear into them. They taste like someone loved every single one at every step of its creation.
On the plate, the sandwiches are everything you want them to be: huge and overstuffed and hot and messy in the best possible way. Some fillings come off the trompo, like a skirt steak that has a slight char, or al pastor tradicional, laced with the sharp sweetness of roasted pineapple over a gentle adobo-marinated pork. The classico pollo needs the hot spike of the kitchen’s green salsa to make it great, and a bite of the pickled vegetables to make it the kind of thing you remember for a month.
Then there’s the choriqueso, El Chingon’s bull’s-eye. It’s homemade pork chorizo stripped out of its casing; mixed with refritos, guacamole, and a blend of aged fontina and melted Chihuahua cheese to form this dreamy kind of hash; scraped into a vague patty shape; and slapped between two halves of that killer bread. It’s smoky and savory, gooey and perfect, and if I could, I would buy one for every single person in this city. I would stand there while they took their first bites just so I could say, “See? Amazing, right?” and watch their eyes light up.
The menu extends beyond cemitas. There’s birria, dripping with consommé and then stuffed inside homemade sourdough tacos made from a starter Aparicio has been nursing for 20 years. You can eat conchas and pozole for brunch every day — elote, sour with black garlic mayonnaise and a couple long shakes of Tajin, then rolled in cotija, like a hit of summer even in the off-season. The cemitas are the draw, absolutely. The main attraction. But when you sit down at El Chingon’s crowded counter (with its white-plaster-and-brick map of Mexico and the little bowl of naranjitas by the register) or on a stool against the wall and order any of it, you feel folded into the warm, loud heart of a 30-seat neighborhood spot that’s serving everyone it can, as fast as it can. There’s a joyous electricity to service that might just be all the pent-up years of waiting for El Chingon to become a real thing, but that feels lovely and hard-won. This is the restaurant Juan Carlos Aparicio has been waiting his whole life to open. And we’re so lucky it’s finally here.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Published as “Cemitas, Years in the Making” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.