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‘Chef’s Table’ Recap: Cristina Martinez Makes Taco Magic at South Philly Barbacoa

This episode tells the story of how an undocumented immigrant chef opened one of America’s hottest Mexican restaurants

Cristina Martinez
Courtesy of Netflix

In the fifth season of the award-winning documentary series Chef’s Table, filmmaker Abigail Fuller fixes her camera on Cristina Martinez, chef and co-owner of Philadelphia’s El Compadre and South Philly Barbacoa. The latter establishment currently holds a spot on Eater Philadelphia’s map of the city’s 38 essential restaurants. Martinez, an undocumented immigrant, came to the United States from Mexico as a young adult, and she opened her small restaurant with her husband, Ben Miller, in 2016. It gained national recognition almost immediately, landing on Bon Appetit’s best new restaurants list for that year and later featuring in celebrity chef David Chang’s Netflix series, Ugly Delicious. Now, in addition to her work serving celebrated lamb tacos, Martinez is an activist for immigrants’ rights in America.

What was Martinez’s journey through the culinary world like?

Barbacoa — lamb that is laced with citrus and slow-cooked over an open flame — is in Martinez’s DNA. She is a native of Capulhuac, Mexico, which she says is the “capital” of the dish. Her family has been making it “from the beginning,” and she got her start when she was six years old. “I’ve been cooking barbacoa since I was 6 years old,” Martinez says. “And still, when I’m making barbacoa, I feel something magical. I rejoice in my heart.”

Martinez got married at 17 and began working for her in-laws, who also traded in barbacoa, but her husband and his family were abusive. Two years after the wedding, Martinez’s daughter, Karla, was born. When Karla was a teenager, she and her mother determined boarding school was the best option for her future. To pay for this, Martinez left her husband to emigrate to the United States. After a difficult journey across the desert from Juarez into the U.S., she found a job cutting vegetables in a restaurant. Martinez was focused and talented, eventually working her way up to pastry chef.

Martinez eventually moved to Philadelphia and continued to work in restaurants, all the while saving money for her daughter, whom she has not seen in years.

Courtesy of Netflix

What is her “aha” moment?

Unlike so many of the chefs featured in this series, Martinez was not looking to give her own molecular gastronomical update to a traditional cuisine — she was simply trying to live. After she was fired from a job at an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia — because she asked the owner to offer a letter of support in her application for a green card — she and Miller began making and selling barbacoa out of their one-bedroom apartment. “Out of necessity, Cristina started cooking barbacoa in the house,” Miller says. “She had to make money for Karla, and so we started on our stove and then later we bought a little propane burner, and we were cooking this in our apartment.”

But Martinez’s food quickly became well-known among Philadelphia’s Mexican community as a taste of home, thanks to Cristina’s hustle. “We made business cards,” Miller says. “She was passing out her number to guys on the street and saying, ‘Come over on Sunday morning.’ At 7 in the morning we had people coming over having barbacoa and consomme.” It wasn’t long before Martinez and Miller were doing enough business to open their own restaurant, and when they got a tip on a space being vacated by a friend in the industry, South Philly Barbacoa was born.

What do people say about her work?

“Lamb barbacoa is a very traditional dish from Central Mexico. It’s very difficult to prepare. It’s difficult enough to find good barbacoa in Mexico. So, when Bon Appetit issued its ‘10 best restaurants in America list’ and there was a barbacoa restaurant in Philadelphia, it’s a crazy idea.” — Inger Diaz Barriga, Univision journalist, on Martinez’s cuisine

“Barbacoa is highly technique-driven. I don’t know if a lot of people think about Mexican food or barbacoa that way, but it is. It’s lovely to talk about the magic and the mysticism of the food, but there’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of time has to be invested. ” — Tunde Wey, writer, chef, and activist, on the difficult reality of making barbacoa

“When you see Cristina preparing the barbacoa, you can see this is not somebody that has just happened upon a butcher knife and some meat. This is somebody who has been doing this stuff for a long time. She is using the same techniques that have been with her family for generations. I’ve had tacos before — I’ve had good tacos before — but to produce a taco so delicious, it just, like, bugs my mind. I’m like, ‘wow!’ Cristina has managed to infuse her energy into her food. That is who she is.” — Wey, on Martinez’s mastery of her trade

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