I’m not going to lie. Since watching the Chef’s Table episode on Netflix that features South Philly Barbacoa last year, I’ve visited four times. An inspirational story of a Mexican immigrant working to send money home for her daughter’s education threads through the emotional episode. Shots of every step of the barbacoa–making process are highlighted in rich color and detail, and scenes of a bustling, hole–in–the–wall restaurant act as an invitation for Philly residents to stop in as regulars or to try something new.
A meal at South Philly Barbacoa is not a quick stop. The line is often out the door—I’ve waited over 30 minutes—and the hours are irregular, only open Friday through Monday (8 AM–4PM M&F, 5AM–5PM Saturday & Sunday). When you finally enter, servers and cooks are hustling to prepare the food behind a short glass barrier, so patrons get a full view of the process. Your order is placed on a lectern situated right in the middle of the kitchen.
After paying (cash only), you pass your receipt to the cook to the right, who chops barbacoa—a traditional Caribbean preparation of meat. Then, the cook slaps taco–sized servings into warm tortillas and hands the plate to you. Tacos in hand, you have a second to breathe and find a seat at the vinyl–covered community tables, where Spanish and English are often spoken at the same table.
Ordering is hectic, but as the rest of the meal is delivered to the table, the casual, community vibes allow for a family–like eating experience. Surrounded by the bright colors and sounds of decorations and music, enjoying a meal that is so obviously prepared with time and thoughtfulness, I couldn't help but smile and appreciate this transplanted piece of Mexican culture. If you’re lucky, as I was on my most recent visit, you’ll get to see Cristina Martinez bustling through the restaurant, greeting customers, clearing dishes, and delivering food.
Without ruining the Chef’s Table episode, some background information is important to understand how South Philly Barbacoa has become the cultural mainstay that exists in the Italian Market today.
Martínez left Capulhuac, Mexico around a decade ago, and found work as a prep cook and then as an Italian pastry chef in Philadelphia. There, she met and married Benjamin Miller. After the Italian restaurant discovered her undocumented immigration status, she was fired, but she needed to find a source of income to send to her daughter for her education. She and Miller began preparing barbacoa for neighborhood workers until fears of the consequences of operating the business from their apartment forced them to open a cart, followed by a brick–and–mortar location in the Italian Market. In November of 2016, Bon Appétit Magazine named South Philly Barbacoa one of the top ten best new restaurants.
In the Chef's Table episode, Martinez said of her barbacoa, “Now I am setting an example. I believe food has power, I make my food with love, with strength, and with passion. Through food we can find home.” There is no question that these sentiments show through her restaurant.
Regular menu items include three types of individual tacos, between $3–4 each: veggie, lamb pancita, and the house special: lamb barbacoa. The barbacoa cooks in a pit covered in maguey for hours, seasoned with oranges and salt.
If you avoid meat like I do, South Philly Barbacoa is still worth the trip. The vegetarian tacos are excellent and everything else on the menu is delicious. The quesadillas are grilled with homemade Oaxaca cheese and served hot off the grill. When I went most recently, I was lucky to find a special addition to the menu: homemade guacamole and thick, salty tortilla chips for $5.
If you’re venturing there with a group, go for the ½ kilo or kilo options. You’ll be served a platter of meat, a stack of hot tortillas, and unlimited onion, cilantro, lime, cactus, and salsa for a make–it–yourself experience. These group orders also come with bowls of consommé—a brothy soup with rice and chickpeas.
A variety of juices are available, squeezed in front of customers in a back corner of the restaurant. Horchata is also served, and it’s a staple to round out the meal. For dessert, there are offerings of cakes and pastries, but the sweet tamales stand out. Corn–husk wrapped dough filled with pineapple and raisins, they are not too sweet, but hit the spot. And they are only $1.
The warm and fresh tortillas made in house are a highlight. The corn is originally sourced from Chiapas, Mexico, and is grown on a local Lancaster farm. Martinez found that the US’s genetically modified corn was not of the quality that her barbacoa demands. The tortilla dough is pressed into shape and grilled immediately before serving.
Martinez has been an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights, following attempts to obtain a green card. She has rooted herself in the community through her food and activism. Following the earthquakes in Puerto Rico earlier this year, Martinez and Puerto Rican chef, María Mercedes Grubb, hosted fundraisers at South Philly Barbacoa to support earthquake victims and recovery.
Martinez does not stop there, as she opened a new restaurant, Casa Mexico, last week only two doors down from their current location. It’s a BYO, cash–only, lunch and dinner spot.