For the last 18 months, husband and wife Benjamin Miller and Cristina Martinez set up a food cart near their South Philadelphia home every Saturday and Sunday from 6 in the morning until the food ran out. South Philly Barbacoa quickly became known for Martinez’s specialty: the tender lamb barbacoa she grew up with and learned to make in Capulhuac, a small town outside of Mexico City.
“She’s a barbacoa-ist,” says Miller proudly. “Her whole family is. It’s in their blood. You can taste it.”
But this past May, the city — possibly responding to a neighbor’s complaints — impounded the cart for illegal parking. “Even when we got it back and parked on the sidewalk [with a license], I thought we could do better,” says Miller.
The solution was a move to brick and mortar. South Philly Barbacoa opened in July at 11th and Morris, in the former Vegan Commissary. It’s open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, from 5 a.m. until the food is gone.
Barbacoa in its purest form is about butchering and then slow-steaming beef, mutton or lamb over an open fire or a pit covered with maguey leaves or coals. Martinez focuses on lamb since it’s most common among chefs in her region of Mexico — an area she left when her daughter wanted to enroll in nursing school.
“Cristina walked across a Mexican desert to get to America and make more money for her kids,” says Miller. “She’s brave and tough.”
But, “as an undocumented worker, Cristina found it rough going, so we decided to do it ourselves,” he adds, referring to first the cart and now the restaurant.
The restaurant uses locally sourced meat and keeps to a small menu, Miller says: “It all comes back to Cristina and her expertise.”
What to eat at Barbacoa:
The menu has only three options: There’s the namesake dish, which comes as lamb tacos on homemade tortillas; pancita, a tripe dish; and a consomme made with lamb drippings, chickpeas, epazote and rice.
Near Martinez’s cutting station is the fixings bar. Load your dish up with green or red salsa, pickled cactus, sliced poblano pepper, cilantro, limes and onions.