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Danny Lyu (center), founder of Mexican sandwich stand Cemita's, heaps on a helping of Oaxacan cheese.

If you’re a food vendor looking to stand out at Smorgasburg, sometimes it’s necessary to go big or go home.

Cemita’s goes gargantuan.

Stand owner, In Bundles founder, and unabashed food freak Danny Lyu piles his Mexican sandwiches miles high. Fresh veggies, Oaxacan cheese, choice meats and bean spread are layered upon a crunchy, eggy bun resulting in a double-fisted delight. It also makes further grazing impossible.

We spoke with Danny to learn more about his love of sandwiches, grocery shopping and a sweet childhood drink.

So Danny, where are you from and what got you interested in food?

I grew up in Southern California and was raised by food-obsessed parents; the kind who would load up the kids and drive an hour to take us to a restaurant that made one dish really well. Other times, we’d drive an hour just because my dad wanted some Bob’s Big Boy. Our ’83 Oldsmobile station wagon with the wood panels definitely got some miles on it. My parents are restaurant owners themselves so they know what’s good and they’ll seek it out.

When I was younger, my interest in food wasn’t more than wanting to eat it. Food was just food. When I was older and working for my parents in their restaurant, food was why my dad banged on my bedroom door at 6 AM and opened my windows so the cold air would get me out of bed. Now food is my passion.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I live in Manhattan but I love Brooklyn. It’s where I first lived when I moved to New York 10 years ago. It’s where my first experience with NYC food was, too. “One half fried chicken with fried rice, please.” We don’t have this kind of thing in California, so when I saw it at my local Chinese take-out place, Brooklyn had me at “Hello – Hood Hing Restaurant!”

Why cemitas?

Sandwiches are my favorite food. It’s the perfect meal. Bread, vegetables, meat and cheese. What’s not to like? And even though I worked in my family’s Korean restaurants, the Mexicans I worked with in the kitchen had the biggest effect on me. They taught me how to cook real Mexican food. But it wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn that I discovered the cemita.

A cemita is a common street food from Puebla, Mexico. Turns out most Mexicans in LA are from around Mexico City, but Mexicans in NY are in large part from Puebla. That’s why I never tried the dish in California. I never knew there was a Mexican sandwich beyond the torta! The cemita is like the Dagwood of Mexican sandwiches. It’s huge, has lots of layers and tons of flavor.

The Mexican dagwood - a 'cemita' from the eponymous stand at Smorgasburg.

What’s the difference between a cemita and a torta?

Comparing the two is like comparing chess to checkers. Both are damn good but a cemita’s complexity takes it over the top. A torta is more or less a standard sandwich — kind of like a Mexican hoagie. The cemita has 10 layers between a slightly sweet sesame seeded bun with a pleasantly crunchy exterior. From the bottom up, it has black bean spread, mayo, meat (panko crusted herbed chicken, carnitas or lengua), lettuce, tomatoes, pickled onions, avocado, Oaxaca cheese, papalo (a pungent herb that’s been compared to a citrusy cilantro) and a chipotle puree. You will not be hungry after eating a cemita.

No doubt. Tell me about your relationship with Smorgasburg — do you sell any place else?

Smorgasburg is a great way for new food businesses to beta test their product. It turned out to be our saving grace. Our goal was to open a cemita shop in Midtown, but our location fell through when our landlord dropped off the face of the earth after six contract revisions. Them’s the breaks! But it was also a blessing. We got to reach out to a younger, more experimental clientele.

Most people have never heard of a cemita and coming to a food-focused flea market is a great time to try new dishes. The Brooklyn Flea crew who organizes Smorgasburg is great at helping small businesses like mine grow. We’ve had the opportunity to sell at other Brooklyn Flea locations and reach out to audiences outside of Williamsburg at special events and catering parties.

Learning curves and biggest surprise so far?

The most difficult part about Cemita’s is buying food based on weather. At a brick and mortar restaurant, you can pretty much buy consistent amounts of food and supplies. Since Smorgasburg is outdoors, we have to keep an eye on the weather forecast at all times. If it’s raining or super hot, then we’re screwed. It wouldn’t be so bad if we had a brick and mortar location where we could sell our leftover food but since we normally only sell once per week, if we have food leftover then it means we’re shit out of luck. It also means that I’m eating Mexican food at home every night of the week. I’m actually cool with that, but my wife? Not so much.

When the weather is good and people are out, business is gangbusters. It gets pretty intense when there are lines 20 people deep for hours but we thrive off of that stuff. It’s a rush to be neck deep making cemitas all day. I’m always surprised by the number of people who have never eaten or heard of a cemita before.

Tell us about the different flavors you offer.

We sell Mexican sandwiches and tacos but specialize in the cemita. Right now, we offer the Cemita with panko fried chicken, carnitas or beef tongue, which is really good. The tongue is cooked until it’s fork tender and has a beefy-beef flavor. We offer the same meats in taco form, too. I love the panko fried chicken taco. It was a favorite of mine when I was a kid. We used to eat them whenever we went surfing. I’ve never really seen it outside of a few sleepy beach towns. If you’re in the mood for chicken taquitos, we have those too.

What I’m really excited about are the dishes we’re currently developing. Tortas, gorditas and some Mexican sandwiches you’ve never even heard of…

Bright future! A view of the Cemita's stand at Smorgasburg.

Next plans?

I’m pretty psyched just to be so successful at Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea but I’m always looking to the future. I hope to find a really small location where we can start showing people what Mexican sandwiches are all about. Mexican food enthusiasts can discover dishes way beyond the taco. Although, we’ll sell some awesome tacos, too. Mexican food meets sandwiches – who wouldn’t love that?

Thoughts on Brooklyn food scene?

My favorite part about the Brooklyn food scene is that I actually see people doing things. Being a do-er is really important to me. You can talk about an idea forever but unless you go for it, you’re just full of hot air. Hot, stinky summer Brooklyn air. Lots of Brooklynites are actually doing stuff. I really admire that.

Love? I’m totally in love with life right now. I have a beautiful wife, an 18-month-old daughter, a successful business and hair. But I’m also loving the gorditas made by the ladies in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. I’m there every Sunday at 10am chowing on their gorditas with salsa roja. They are beyond good.

Have a favorite food, drink spot or product?

I tend to do most my “adventurous” eating while I’m buying groceries for Cemita’s in Mexican neighborhoods. I never miss an opportunity to order the cecina (salted beef) huaraches at Guerrero Mexican Market while I’m waiting for my groceries to be put together. It’s big, salty, spicy, hot and surprisingly refreshing with a handful of crisp vegetables and hot salsa on top of the fried masa. They’ve got a customer-for-life in me.

What’s your favorite summer treat?

It has been years since I’ve had it but my favorite summer treat is a weird sugar-fruit-water-ice soup that my mom usually makes with strawberries. First, you take a big handful of strawberries and cut them into quarters. Put the strawberry slices into a big bowl, top it with a generous amount of sugar and fill the bowl with ice cubes and water. Stir it a few times and you have a fresh bowl of fruit water that reminds me of a whole fruit agua fresca or a less ghetto Kool-Aid.

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2 Responses to Danny Lyu’s Cemitas Spice Up the Sandwich Scene at Smorgasburg

  1. Pingback: CEMITA'S MEXICAN SANDWICHES » Archive » WE’RE IN THE PRESS. SON.

  2. Pingback: NYC Summer Food Event THROWDOWN: Smorgasburg vs. Serious Eats All Star Sandwich Festival | pancakesandpilates

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