Time and tradition infused tacos at South Philly Barbacoa

A husband and wife team bring authentic Mexican barbacoa to Philadelphia by way of food cart.

As some people at Taproom on 19th celebrate Cinco de Mayo with drinks in hand and friends by their sides, there’s another group of people at the back of the pub eagerly awaiting the chance to feast on some of Cristina Martinez’s and Benjamin Miller’s barbacoa before they sell out.

This married couple run their food cart, South Philly Barbacoa, outside Las Rosas Bakery on 8th and Watkins streets early Sunday mornings from 6 a.m. until they run out, which happens more often than not. They were hosted by Taproom on 19th for a special pop-up event celebrating the holiday by serving their signature slow cooked lamb and pancita tacos with fresh tortillas, consommé, salsas and other fixings.

The cart debuted earlier this year on the last week of January and since then, they’ve already seen a surge in popularity after being featured at Garage on Passyunk as well as Taproom.

Martinez is folowing Mexican tradition by only remaining open on Sundays.

“Everybody is working and on Sunday, everybody can come together and have a special meal,” said Martinez.

The restaurant also stays true to its heritage with its intricate cooking that is involved in its traditional, Mexican barbacoa style. The lamb and pancita, which is made from lamb stomach and pork, is wrapped in maguey leaves and then put into a pit oven in the ground to cook for about 10-12 hours.

Martinez then prepares the meat in front of the customer by slicing it up to make lamb and pancita tacos sold for $3 each along with consommé, a soup made from the leftover broth, also served at $3 a cup.

This expertise comes from Martinez’s lifelong experience of cooking barbacoa with her family since she was six years old in in her hometown of Capulhuac, Mexico. Martinez also has a restaurant in Mexico that her sister runs but she now works at Las Rosas Bakery after having moved to south Philly.

Miller, having worked in various kitchens like Han Dynasty and currently cooking at Kanella, describes barbacoa as a “southern barbeque.”

“It’s really different because they do it on a bigger scale,” Miller said. “The food that Cristina is doing from Mexico is a very labor-intensive craft.”

First-time customers, Patterson Watkins and Alex Hillman, said they appreciated how affordable the food is despite the day-long process it requires to cook.

“You can’ beat the price knowing how much time and effort went into making it,” Watkins said.

“There’s not a lot of really great Mexican food in the city,” Hillman said. “I could see this easily being on the short list of really good spots.”

With both of them holding full-time jobs, this new business venture on the side has been a learning process in becoming entrepreneurs. Martinez has needed to adapt to the tightly regulated American food system compared to back home. Miller has acted as an “apprentice” to this new trade in which continues to develop.

“It’s a lot of adapting but if it wasn’t a learning process, I think it would get boring,” Miller said. “You have to stay learning your whole life.”

After the abandonment of their initial plan to open a restaurant in the Isaiah Zagar building on 10th Watkins streets, they’re still planning on opening a concrete restaurant to accommodate more people and do more with the business.

So far, it’s been hard work and dedication in serving the community this new type of Mexican food fare and Martinez hopes she can serve as a positive example with what the food cart has become.

“The majority of people that are doing Mexican food here in Philadelphia are men and they’re coming from Puebla and I’m coming from a different state,” Martinez said with translation from Miller. “I’m a woman and I’m doing strong food with a very strong concept and a good execution.”

Albert Hong can be reached at albert.hong@temple.edu.

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