So if you’ve been following along thus far, you know that I’ve spent most of the last few weeks talking about tacos and focusing on one locale in particular – South Philly Barbacoa. After all of my nervousness and careful planning, it happened. And now I live to tell the tale.
South Philly Barbacoa has moved locations a few times over the last few years, and finally landed at the corner of 9th and Ellsworth Streets in the southern end of the 9th Street Italian Market. As this move was pending earlier this summer, I snuck in to try their tacos while they shared their space with El Compadre, also on 9th Street.
Now, I have to tell you that my partner and I watched the episode of Ugly Delicious focusing on tacos the night before we went to El Compadre. And I was clueless that David Cheng interviewed the owners of South Philly Barbacoa, Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller. With my mouth on the floor as Cristina and the streets of South Philly appeared on the screen, I managed to have a new form of panic build up in the pit of my stomach. I was already intimidated by trying to write about food, and now I may run into the actual people who not only made the food, but were being nationally recognized for their food and work on immigration.
You see, if you would use the term “famous” to describe any one person, I become incredibly awkward. For whatever reason, I don’t know how to interact with them in the wild. This has resulted in some seriously embarrassing and hysterical encounters (most of which don’t paint me in the greatest light but you will surely here over the course of this blog). My partner knew this would be particularly amusing prior to arriving, but I could feel him giggle as we walked up to El Compadre and Cristina was outside greeting everyone. I’m sure my eyes were wider than normal as I turned pale and tried not to freak out. All I can say is thank goodness I went before she was interviewed by Samantha Bee – I may have turned on my heels and retreated right then and there.
Cristina is extremely welcoming to all who enter the restaurant – it’s as if she is welcoming you to join her family at a lunch/dinner table. El Compadre is a tight space – there were a few tables (and by few I mean about 3) that could sit 6 and then one long counter that could accommodate another 6 people. Fridays through Sundays they serve the barbacoa tacos alongside their normal menu of torta sandwiches (side note, this has since changed now that South Philly Barbacoa has moved into it’s own space). As soon as we entered, we were greeted with the meat carving station for pork and lamb tacos. And a menu for the tortas, soups, and – my senses and stomach were overwhelmed.
Cristina ushered us along the entire time as we each ordered a lamb and pork taco, alongside a chorizo and potato torta. After we got our plates of tacos, we were pointed in the direction of taco toppings. I have to admit – I was guessing at what was going on each of my tacos. Roasted peppers, onions, and what looked green beans were available to dress up the tacos as well as a red and green salsa. Unfortunately the guac had run dry by the time we arrived by everything else looked, and smelled, delish.
We managed to grab two seats at the long bar and realized that we had gotten there just in time as the line started forming immediately after our arrival. While the stream of guests entered the restaurant, I turned my attention to the main event.
I started with the pork, soft and tender with heat that built over time. While I could not identify the spices, the flavor was intense. On the flip side, the lamb barbacoa taco was milder in flavor but reminded me of the simplistic but complex layering of flavors that are also prevalent in Japanese and Italian food. You could tell that Cristina and her team respected the ingredients that they worked with – choosing the best meat and produce in which to create a memorable meal for their customers.
Once we finished the tacos, we refocused on the torta. The bread, made in house, was crispy on the outside and soft inside. It encased the chorizo, potatoes, and guac, retaining all of the juiciness from the chorizo and potatoes without creating a mess on your plate. While the flavors were different from that on the tacos, the sandwich still had a nice heat that was mellowed out by the guac and potato.
While water was readily available, I went outside mid-meal to grab a horchata drink. Initially concerned that it was heavy in dairy (a trigger food for me), I was pleasantly surprised that it was plant-based and therefore safe. Which is probably bad for my wallet, as I will return any hot day of the week for that horchata.
Now while I managed to not embarrass myself around Cristina, I was extremely comforted by her and her staff – they truly did embrace anyone who walked through the door. It left me inspired, wishing I had kept up with my Spanish language so I could have more readily spoken to her about the food, her culture, and her influence on the restaurant scene in Philadelphia. On our way out the door, Cristina offered us a chocolate biscotti-style cookie for the delay in delivering our torta – a rich note to the end of our filling meal.
On the walk home, we took turns drinking the horchata, discussing how great the meal was and how quickly I could re-learn Spanish.