If you didn’t grow up with the word ‘milanesa’ in your vocabulary, my condolences; allow me to elaborate. Milanesa refers to a thinly pounded piece of meat (often chicken, sometimes beef) that has then been dipped in a light coating of breadcrumbs and fried until golden-brown and shatteringly crunchy. It’s an impossible thing to resist. Milanesa is so easy and so delicious, and honestly, quite non-threatening to fry due to how thin the pieces are (thinner pieces = shallower frying vessel = slightly less oil = people seem relieved). Plus the process of effectively breading food is a good one to master. The act of flouring, egging, then crumbing a protein seems simple enough but does actually have a good bit of skill involved, most of which simply involves choosing large enough vessels to coat from (very large shallow bowls are ideal) and being tidy about coating by using a designated dry hand and wet hand.
This recipe involves very little actual cooking time, mostly just a lot of prep and chopping, a good deal of which can be done ahead of time. And besides the milanesa, this recipe is a breeze in terms of skill required to succeed. Did I mention that it’s a goddamn dream to be able to break off a crispy edge and eat it while your guests wait around withering from hunger and anticipation?
Chicken Milanesa Cemitas
Adapted very generously from Gonzalo Guzman (Nopalito)
4 chicken scallopini/milanesa cutlets (or 2 chicken breasts)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp kosher salt + more to season
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chili powder
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
Canola oil, for frying (aim to have at least 2 cups’ worth handy)
Toppings and Assembly:
½ white onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
1 heart of Romaine lettuce, outermost leaves discarded, shredded into ½-inch ribbons
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced (seeded if you’re not a spice fan)
1 cup refried beans (if using store-bought, try to buy a Mexican brand like La Costeña)
1 small ball Oaxaca cheese (a stretchy mozzarella could substitute if needed, but do check – Mexican cheeses are becoming much more widely available)
2 ripe avocadoes, halved, pitted, and sliced
Handful of plucked cilantro leaves
4 tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
4 brioche buns (preferably sesame-seeded) or cemitas
4 tbsp mayonnaise
Salsa, to serve (see my nachos recipe for a dynamite homemade salsa)
Hot sauce, to serve
Lime wedges, to serve
If you did not manage to buy chicken in scallopini/milanesa form (aka pre-pounded), you will need to do this part of the work yourself (skip ahead if you actually went to a butcher shop where they did this part for you!) To start, cut each chicken breast in half horizontally, meaning you should be left with a top and a bottom piece, both of which are equal thickness. Do this to both breasts to yield 4 pieces total. Place a long piece of parchment paper on your workspace, set each breast-half on the paper spaced ~2-3 inches apart from one another, and cover with a second (equally long) sheet of parchment paper. Use a meat mallet to pound the chicken breasts to ~¼-inch thickness. Try to pound the meat out evenly without focusing too much force on any one area. Check the chicken periodically to ensure that you’re not tearing it apart into sticky shreds from pounding too hard.
Once you have your lovely pounded chicken ready, set up for the breading by getting out 3 large, shallow bowls. Whisk the flour, 1 tbsp kosher salt, pepper, and chili powder together in 1 bowl; the beaten eggs in another bowl; the panko in the last bowl. Prepare a large sheet of parchment paper on another area of your workspace as this is where you will place the breaded milanesas prior to frying. Using a designated dry hand and wet hand (and working with 1 piece of meat at a time), dip the chicken in the flour mixture, then the eggs, then the breadcrumbs, ensuring that you let any excess drip or shake off between bowls. When doing the breadcrumb “dip”, make sure to really pack the panko onto the meat so that every crevice has an even coating of crumbs and no “naked” areas are visible. Set the milanesa on the prepared parchment and repeat with remaining pieces.
Once the milanesas are breaded, fill a large, deep skillet with canola oil to ~1/3 the way up the sides of the pan. Use a deep-fry or candy thermometer to heat the oil over medium-high until it reaches 350 degrees F. Working with 1 milanesa at a time, fry the chicken, flipping a few times until the chicken turns an even golden-brown on all sides (minding the temperature all the while and adjusting as needed to stay around 350). This chicken is a flash to cook and you may not need to fry the milanesa for longer than ~3 minutes per piece. Transfer the cooked chicken to a paper towel-lined cooling rack and immediately sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Repeat with remaining chicken.
While the chicken cooks, make sure all of your toppings are handy so that you can start assembling the sandwiches once the last milanesa is cooked. This is also a good time to quickly heat the beans in a small pot and stir them up so they’re nice and smooth for spreading. Once you’re about ready to start making the sandwiches, heat a large dry skillet over medium. Spread the soft butter on each cut side of the buns and cook buttered-side-down until deep golden-brown. Everyone likes their sandwiches assembled a little differently, but my preferred order is as follows (a guideline!): bottom bun spread with a hearty spoonful of beans, topped with a swoosh of salsa, topped with avocado slices, topped with the milanesa cutlet, topped with a scattering of onions, lettuce, cilantro, jalapeño, and hot sauce; spread mayo on the top bun and crown the mighty cemita. Push down lightly as you cut the beast in half with a serrated knife. Delicious AF, gorgeous AF, messy AF.