- By Susan Welsh
This weekend our friends Eloy and Matilde treated us to lunch at South Philly Barbacoa, where the food is so remarkable it made Bon Appetit’s hot 10 lists of America’s best new restaurants and owner, Christina Martinez, is featured in an episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table.
Barbacoa is a labor of love and the kilo of tacos we ate were filled with a whole lotta’ love and attention to detail— from the tortillas made from corn originally sourced from Chiapas (and complete with a traditional Aztec blessing) to the two thousand cactus pads scraped each week for the nopales (prickly pear)— both a cultural icon and a culinary staple in Mexico.
South Philly Barbacoa is not just a meal—it’s an experience. The whole (small) place dances with bright color as women in long red skirts weave among the tables serving up steaming fresh tortillas and the intoxicating aroma of slow-roasted lamb fills the air. It is an honor and a privilege to join Eloy, Matilde, and their daughter Jasmine for this meal, which is a traditional family event, and reminiscent of Sunday suppers with my grandparents so many years ago.
This was my first barbacoa and not my last. That first bite of tender, succulent lamb wrapped in the fluffiest, most flavor-filled tortilla I’ve ever tasted, exceeded all expectations. With a spoonful of pancita (lamb stomach and pork) tucked into the tortilla, some onions and cilantro, tomatillo and a scant hit of habanero and all I know is this: Barbacoa=Love.
This barbacoa definitely qualifies as one of the best things I ever ate. There’s a reason something as ubiquitous as barbacoa can go from the ordinary to the sublime. For South Philly Barbacoa it’s this: the rich history of Christina Martinez’s journey of survival and sustenance, authenticity and advocacy permeates every tortilla, every bite of lamb, and everything on the plate.