South Philly restaurateur and activist brings more than food to the table

South Philly restaurateur brings more than food to the table

Cristina Martínez, celebrity chef and Capulhuac native whose story was recently shared on Netflix, sits down with SPR.

South Philadelphia culinary and activism paragon Cristina Martínez, who was recently featured on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and season five of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, cuts cactus for her signature barbacoa dish at the second version of South Philly Barbacoa, which opened about two months ago on 9th and Ellsworth Streets. Martínez, a native of Capulhuac in Mexico, is open about her undocumented status and actively advocates for the welfare of immigrant workers. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

If you happen to walk through the Italian Market on any given weekend, you may notice a flock of folks lining 9th Street halfway toward Washington Avenue.

The crowds, who sometimes surface as early as 5 a.m., are usually looking to satisfy cravings for marinated lamb tacos made in barbacoa style — a method of meat preparation derived in the Caribbean.

But the foodies could also be snagging a glance of Cristina Martínez.

Some time ago, when the South Philadelphia culinary and activism paragon trekked through a northern Mexican desert for weeks, she never could have imagined where life on the other side of the border would lead — a feature on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee or the subject of the September season five premiere of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, to name a few.

“We’re not making simple food that you can learn in culinary school,” Martínez said, with translations from her husband Benjamin Miller, while sitting in the gallery space of the second version of South Philly Barbacoa, which opened about two months ago. “We’re learning something that you can only learn through the dedication of a family business doing for years. Apart from anything, that’s the most important that (I) want people to know.”

Martínez, who is open about her undocumented status, fled to Philadelphia to escape an emotionally and physically abusive marriage several years ago while also looking to make money toward her daughter’s school tuition.

Before arriving here, Martínez dedicated nearly her entire life to the barbacoa business with her family, as she was born and raised in Capulhuac — a town near Mexico City considered to be the capital of this BBQ-esque cooking.

After working alongside her father and later her former husband, Martínez had more than mastered the artistry of barbacoa — from wrapping the meat in maguey cactus leaves to marinating the lamb in orange and salt.

“It’s not something to throw on your menu, because it’s a buzzword or something. It’s a real, dedicated craft,” Miller explained.

But, when she initially relocated to Philly, Martínez was not whipping up her signature dish just yet, as she knocked from door to door of restaurants looking for a job.

While working as a dishwasher, vegetable cutter and then a pastry chef for restaurants around the city, she eventually met her current husband who was also working in the kitchens. After falling in love and getting married, Martínez sought to receive a green card, but when she went to her boss for a reference, she was abruptly fired.

Chefs of El Compadre prepare for a bustling afternoon of customers. As one of Martínez’s restaurants, the location was used to film the season five premiere of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Still needing to send money to her daughter, Martínez and Miller began preparing lamb barbacoa in their apartment at 8th and Ellsworth. Her rendition of this traditional Mexican dish, which was primarily serving booming Hispanic communities in the Passyunk Square, Dickinson Narrows and Wharton neighborhoods, grew so popular that she was even catering weddings out of her own kitchen.

When the couple later moved their service to a cart parked at 8th and Watkins, the cuisine became a supernova, landing accolades from national and regional publications and critics, including Craig LaBan.

However, Martínez was ultimately put on the map when the first version of South Philly Barbacoa — located off of East Passyunk Avenue — was billed number №6 in Bon Appétit’s 2016 issue of America’s top 10 best new restaurants.

Although that location closed, eventually, El Compadre, her second restaurant and also the brainchild of Martínez’s late son, opened on 9th Street just south of Ellsworth and across the street from the second South Philly Barbacoa located on the corner.

Along with scenes in Capulhuac, the majority of the Chef’s Table episode — a visual narrative that not only depicts Martínez’s milestones but also conveys her values — was filmed in El Compadre during August 2017.

One scene of the episode is actually set in Lancaster, as the restaurants maintain an exclusive patch of organic and indigenous corn used to produce their own tortillas. The crops even receive traditional Aztecs blessings, as featured in the episode.

The seeds themselves were transported over the border from a community in Capulhuac.

“We actually brought the seed and grow it here,” Miller said. “It’s from local soil … it has that life in it.”

The corn is merely one element of an exquisite execution used to compose the barbacoa tacos in the South Philly eatery.

In fact, the new restaurant, which is dedicated to the dish, is only open on the weekends, because the staff of about a dozen spends the workweek importing the corn, slicing the cactus leaves and preparing the mammoth amounts of lamb meat — about a half a ton for one weekend, Miller says.

Aside from estimating that roughly 1,000 dishes were recently served in just one day, he also says Martínez has been flooded with fan mail from around the world since the Netflix premiere last month.

And while Martínez has garnered global praise in recent months, her paramount purpose lies with hushed hands cooking and cleaning in secluded kitchens of local restaurants.

Every day, she fights for the political and social equality of undocumented workers in Philadelphia.

“(I feel) nervous and worried for the entire community and not just about (myself) but just for the community in general, because of the attacks that are being made on the community that have been amped up,” Martínez said. “(We’re) in a very unstable position. They don’t know if the president is going to change something from one day to the other. There’s a lack of stability.”

Last year, the couple helped influence a city council resolution that worked toward “recognizing every person’s fundamental right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status, and affirming the City of Philadelphia’s commitment to protect and secure a safe and dignified workplace for all,” as described in the resolution, which was approved by the governing body in April 2017.

That same month, Mayor Jim Kenney awarded Martínez the 2017 Nationalities Service Award, commending her advocacy for immigrants.

She strives to shed light on working conditions most immigrants right here in the city are forced to endure, like salaries below minimum wage and inadequate and often dangerous kitchenware.

“By Cristina openly sharing her story, I think it’s acknowledging a lot of people that aren’t in a position to share it. She’s sharing it very bravely about the truth of her immigration, and it represents a lot of people who don’t have that ability, because, if they were to share their story, they would be let go from their jobs or they would be under difficult pressure,” Miller said. “So, she’s accomplished so much being a successful restaurateur, and now she’s speaking to her experience and hopefully, that will encourage other people that have a similar story.”

In light of recent crackdowns by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Martínez says, at any given moment, she and her barbacoa staff are ready to close their curtains and return to their countries — a reality they brave every day.

For now, though, Martínez, who speaks minimal English, continues to wholeheartedly articulate her advocacy through one avenue — food.

“The main message is that we’re cooking, and we’re doing the best that we can. And, we’re putting our all into the food … our team and our crew (are) very important,” Martínez said. “The people that are working with us have a lot of skills. We value them — their stories and their intelligence. And the most important message is through the food.”