“No llores.” Cristina Martinez laughs as she instructs her staff not to cry. The small team is chopping hundreds of onions and the tiny kitchen is filled with a stinging aroma that would make anyone’s eyes water. Not Eater Philly’s Chef of the Year and her team, though. They keep chopping.
Since moving to the United States from Toluca, Mexico, 10 years ago, Martinez, along with her husband, Ben Miller, opened South Philly Barbacoa — the taco powerhouse that’s graced episodes of Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious, gaining attention both for the food and for Martinez and Miller’s immigrants’ rights activism. Like many barbacoa eateries in Mexico, it’s open to the public only three days a week, Saturday through Monday. But on its so-called off days, South Philly Barbacoa buzzes with activity at 1140 S. 9th Street, in Philadelphia’s Italian Market.
“We all work, all week,” Martinez says in Spanish, as all the counter space in the restaurant fills with tomatillos, poblano peppers, and bundles of cilantro.
Martinez’s signature dish is barbacoa: lamb that simmers for hours and hours in a citrusy marinade before it’s slapped onto house-made corn tortillas. But on Tuesday mornings, when the restaurant is closed, there’s no meat to be found in South Philly Barbacoa. Instead, Martinez and her staff spend hours dethorning prickly cactus pads. How many? She pulls out a calculator and punches in a few numbers.
Two-thousand cactus pads per week, she answers casually.
The barbacoa Martinez crafts is meticulous and complex (and secret — Martinez and Miller won’t disclose details about the process). But carving and cutting the nopales is some of the hardest prep work in the restaurant. For Martinez, it’s important to serve something healthy alongside the rich barbacoa. And cactus — a staple in Mexican cuisine — is thought by some to have health benefits.
Martinez believes nopales can absorb fat and cholesterol, she says, “so that a person can feel good, and enjoy a good taco.”
Each Tuesday morning, Martinez and her staff scrape the thorns from hundreds of cactus pads. After they’re chopped, the nopales are cooked down and chilled with carrots and onions:
Deep in the basement of South Philly Barbacoa, co-owners Martinez and Miller store corn to be pounded into tortillas. The corn has a story of its own: grown in Lancaster, it’s originally sourced from a Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico:
South Philly Barbacoa makes everything in-house, including the cheese, a soft, salty strain from Oaxaca that Martinez compares to mozzarella:
Martinez estimates a total of 20 staff workers make South Philly Barbacoa possible. “Todos trabajamos, toda la semana,” she says, which means, “We all work, all week.”:
Glasses for aguas frescas sit by South Philly Barbacoa’s kitchen. Martinez and Miller import cactus fruit and tamarind for juicing:
Martinez chops a bundle of cilantro after it spent more than an hour drying:
Green tomatoes imported from Oaxaca burst from a shipping box before they’re charred and cooked down into green salsa:
Finally, Martinez fills a table with chopped cilantro after an hours-long process of washing, drying, and mincing:
The end result is South Philly Barbacoa’s famed tacos, which the eatery will start serving at 5 a.m. on Saturday:
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