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South Philly Barbacoa and Mission Taqueria Battle Over Barbacoa

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The cultural appropriation conversation rears its head in Philadelphia yet again

South Philly Barbacoa/Facebook

Cultural appropriation within Philly’s restaurant scene has been quite the hot topic lately — something worthy of national attention, it seems. Today, the saga continued as Cristina Martinez, the chef at long-time South Philly taqueria favorite South Philly Barbacoa, wrote a Huffington Post essay calling out hip Center City newcomer Mission Taqueria for appropriating her restaurant’s namesake barbacoa recipe.

Martinez’s lamb tacos — which crank every weekend out of a tiny, colorful South Philly storefront — have gained national recognition. Her proprietary ten- to 12-hour cooking process involves steaming whole cuts of lamb in a pit with maguey leaves. And now, Martinez recounts how the kitchen crew at Mission Taqueria, led by Brett Naylor and Andrew Sabin, stopped into South Philly Barbacoa and ordered a half-kilo of barbacoa one week before their restaurant was to open. She said they asked all kinds of questions about the process, and when she retreated into the kitchen because she was feeling paranoid and “could not communicate efficiently in English,” the crew followed her: “They never presented themselves, never said who they were or where they came from; they could’ve said I’m this person from this place — they weren’t invited into the kitchen.”

However, When Eater reached out to Naylor for comment, he recounted the episode completely differently: He says that he and his executive chef Andrew Sabin visited the shop a few months before Mission Taqueria opened “for inspiration.” He and Cristina got to talking and, under his impression, the conversation seemed cordial and chef-to-chef. So when Cristina told him she ground her own corn, he was curious how, and when he asked, she motioned to the kitchen, which, to him, seemed like an invite. Obviously, there was a lapse in communication since she was surprised to see that they followed. Naylor said Cristina told them they couldn’t be in the kitchen, and they “hustled out of there and apologized immediately.” On their way out, he said Cristina left them with parting gifts: sweet tamales. “I left thinking it was a good experience.”

Weeks later, when Martinez and her husband and business partner Ben Miller visited Mission they saw barbacoa, but it was dressed in sesame tzatziki served with quinoa tabbouleh. Martinez, who was trained by her parents in Capulhuac, Mexico, the birthplace of Mexican barbacoa, asserts that this is a prime example of cultural appropriation. She offers that a “change of perspective” on Mission’s part could’ve allowed a more open discussion about the methods and techniques involved in the barbacoa process. Instead, she felt as though her intellectual property was stolen, then fused with Middle Eastern flair.

Miller wasn’t there when the South Philly Barbacoa run-in occurred. He recalls a memory from later that day to Eater, “When I came back to the restaurant, my whole staff was upset. Everyone was emotionally offended.” Miller explained, “Barbacoa doesn’t belong on a menu. It’s a tradition. It’s not something to throw on a menu because it’s a buzzword.” He calls much of what happens at Mission “disrespectful”, like the selfies being taken with the Virgin of Guadalupe standing inside Mission’s outdoor vestibule, and like the girl in the taco dress Mission posted to its Instagram. Cristina elaborates:

Tacos play a very prominent role in my culture. Sure, in essence, they constitute protein in a good tortilla. But more than anything, they represent the act of gathering and eating with your family. They represent enjoying good company and replenishing your body. My people eat tacos after a hard day’s work, but these days some people are turning tacos into the newest foodie cash crop.

For Martinez and Miller, Mission’s menu choice wasn’t the only thing that spurred today’s HuffPo op-ed. Miller, an outspoken advocate for progressive change within the restaurant industry, said that it’s part of a much larger issue: racism within the food community, and — more to his point — people using Mexican culture to make a dime without treating it with the respect it deserves. After the kitchen incident, Miller reached out to Naylor via Instagram for an public apology Naylor refused. Naylor says that he did apologize, but Miller says otherwise.

Naylor tells Eater, “we completely respect and hear where Cristina Martinez is coming from. As soon as we read this morning’s op-ed, we reached out to her directly to offer a personal apology, but her husband and partner Ben Miller answered and would not allow her to speak to us. Instead, he demanded a public apology from Mission.” He added, “Most of my conversations have been through Ben, and I'd love the opportunity to sit down with Cristina and turn this into something positive."

Copying in cooking is no new thing, but when culture and racism come into play the plot thickens. Your thoughts, in the comments.

South Philly Barbacoa

1140 South 9th Street, , PA 19147 (215) 694-3797 Visit Website

Mission Taqueria

1516 Sansom Street, , PA 19102 (215) 383-1200 Visit Website