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$20 Dinner

For NYC’s Best Cemitas, Head to Coney Island

Doña Zita has been crafting sandwich masterpieces since 2003.

Chorizo cemita, $15

Chorizo cemita, $15 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

The first time I went to Doña Zita this year it was a cloudy, chilly late afternoon in early April. The amusement park rides that surround the modest takeout stand had been operating for a couple of days, but barely anyone was on them. And the sucker games that dominate what is essentially a back alley but is hilariously called "Bowery Street" were also hurting for, uh, suckers.

So the overall vibe along the boardwalk was... not despondent, exactly (Coney will always have a certain spark), but if ever there was a day for Doña Zita's owners Raymundo Bardomiano and Dalia Vázquez, who've been out here doing this since 2003, to phone it in, or pack it up early and go home, or not bother with certain labor intensive options, this was it. 

Not a chance. 

I ordered the chorizo cemita, and it was a masterpiece. Made-to-order like everything here, the mighty beast was stuffed with funky, fiery sausage, a mountain snow-peak's worth of salty grated Oaxaca cheese, some pickled onions and chipotle, big chunks of avocado, the whole thing screaming fresh and redolent with papalo leaves, which can be described as "cranked up cilantro." 

Did I need to eat the whole thing? No. Did I do it anyway? Absolutely. 

Almost as good (and just as jaw-stretching) as the cemita is the Doña Zita torta, which I ate for dinner on a warm, still-sunny evening a few days later, when Bowery Street, and the rest of the boardwalk area, were much more active. Heck, even the hang-from-this-bar-for-two-minutes-and-win-money guy was attracting a crowd.

Milanesa de pollo torta, $15 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Your torta choices include pulled pork, bistec, spicy beef, or Milanesa de pollo, which I got because I wanted to see if they could fry up these breaded breast filets without turning them to cardboard. And, indeed, they could. In fact, this was some of the best Milanesa I've had anywhere, the bird plenty juicy and packed with flavor. 

There's none of that awesome papalo on the torta, but they do pile on the Oaxaca cheese as well as avocado, jalapeno, shredded lettuce, tomato, and a slathering of refried beans. Like the cemita, this sandwich is a monster, and can easily satisfy two.

Chicharron quesadilla, $15 (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

There are other, non-sandwich things at Doña Zita as well, like gorditas, flautas, tostadas, "Mexican hot dogs," and, at a separate counter, a half dozen different tacos. My only venture into this territory (so far) was a chicharron quesadilla, which came out chewy and gooey, the fried skin-on pork bits strewn about on top retaining their crunch. The good stuff kind of gets buried under all that lettuce, though, and I couldn't figure out a way to pick up the quesadilla without spilling everything all over the picnic table.                  

Doña Zita vibes like a funky beachside stand, sun-faded signage and all, but there's also a surprising amount of seating in the cordoned-off courtyard, plus a couple of tables inside, which seems like an ideal spot to hunker down (with a cemita) in case of a thunderstorm. There's even a bathroom back here.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Not that any of this is a secret. Doña Zita lands on just about every "Where To Eat At Coney" list, a bright, shining treasure placed alongside those boardwalk stalwarts whose food, let's be honest, is usually pretty terrible. In fact, this might be the only really good place to eat in the whole amusement park zone. If Doña Zita was on your block, instead across the alley from a go kart track and the Zombie Shootout booth, you'd be eating here once a week. 

Two important notes: Doña Zita is cash only, so save yourself a $4.50 ATM fee and come with a couple of twenties in your pocket for you and your loved one; and because everything's made to order, your wait time will be more like a full-service sit-down restaurant than a fast-food stand. Which is fine. What's the rush? You're in the "playground of the world."

Doña Zita is located at 1221 Bowery Street, just east of Stillwell Avenue, on the way from the subway to the boardwalk.

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