Maria S. Young

Lamb and pancita tacos on the menu at South Philly Barbacoa.

With a shiny food cart serving some of the city’s best tacos, for the past few years weekends at the corner of Eighth and Watkins has been quite the scene. Up until two weeks ago, this cart was a Saturdays-and-Sundays-only outpost of wife-and-husband team Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller’s South Philly Barbacoa.

On July 4, they moved the thriving business into a brick-and-mortar location on 11th Street, just south of Morris. Taking over a former vegan restaurant, the couple is serving the same menu and catering to the early crowd that they cultivated during their street-food days.

The menu is made up of three items, all coming from the whole lambs that they bring in and butcher themselves. Once the lambs are broken down, all of the offal is placed into the lamb’s stomach, and the rest of the meat is cooked, with a pan placed underneath to catch the drippings.

Utilizing the whole animal, there are barbacoa (lamb meat) tacos, pancita (chopped stomach and offal) and consommé, a soup made with the drippings and enriched with rice, garbanzos and epazote, an herb that falls someplace between fennel and oregano.

There are two types of salsa — a red and a green that Martinez makes, depending on what chiles are in season — along with rajas (thinly sliced peppers) and nopales (pickled cactus pad). There’s also a selection of freshly made aguas frescas in the summer and atole, a warm corn drink, during the colder months.

Combining Martinez’s culinary skills and carefully sourced ingredients, South Philly Barbacoa was the best Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia even before it was a restaurant.

“We met working a kitchen together, but the real story is her,” Miller says referring to his wife. “You could replace me with any other guy that can haul a sack of onions. She’s the chef. It’s her concept. It’s everything that she had a vision for.”

Sitting at a table in the newly opened dining room beside Martinez, who only speaks some English, Miller shared his wife’s story.

Coming from Capulhuac, a town southwest of Mexico City, Martinez was born into a world where barbacoa was everywhere. “Every person in town, other than the doctors, makes barbacoa,” Miller says. “Literally, if you’re a banker during the week, you still make barbacoa on the weekend.”

Capulhuac is the home of this regional specialty, and for Martinez it was a family affair. She had four children and opened a barbacoa restaurant with her first husband. After they divorced, she moved to Cancun to sell her lamb tacos and consommé.

When her daughter decided that she wanted to enroll in nursing school, Martinez realized she couldn’t afford to pay the tuition and something had to be done.

“She took an adventure,” Miller explains. “A 30-day walk across the desert.”

“It was crazy,” Martinez chimes in, shaking her head.

After coming to the States, Martinez found work and managed not only to send her daughter to school, but also to invest in a barbacoa restaurant in Capulhuac that her sister manages.

Miller met Martinez while they were working in the same restaurant.

“She was working seven days a week on salary, doing the job of two people,” Miller says. “But she lost that job because of the immigration process.”

Without documentation, Martinez wasn’t able to find another position, making for the bittersweet beginnings of South Philly Barbacoa.

After a few weeks of fruitless job-hunting, Martinez got back in the kitchen, but this time it was the one in her and Miller’s own South Philly home. She made a basket of quesadillas filled with potato and sheep’s brain, and headed to Ninth Street to sell snacks to the Mexican workers there.

While gaining an Italian Market following, Martinez and Miller bought their first lamb and launched an informal weekend barbacoa operation out of their home. An understanding landlady (a “cool old lady from Thailand,” according to Miller) allowed them to install a dozen seats and set up a BYO bar in their back patio.

Opening up their home to the barbacoa-hungry residents of South Philly was a great deal and almost too much of a success: With a packed house on weekends and a burgeoning catering clientele, the logistics of the operation didn’t add up.

Miller was working at Kanella at the time, and one of his co-worker’s parents had a food cart that they used on weekdays. Martinez and Miller could use it on the weekends, and so they moved the taco-making operation from their home to the sidewalk just a few feet outside.

For a few years, South Philly Barbacoa was a destination for locals and curious diners alike, but when a neighbor complained, they decided to make a move — and the timing was seamless. Some of the staff of Vegan Commissary were regular customers, and when the owner of that business decided to focus more on wholesale, Martinez and Miller moved their business into Vegan Commissary’s former space.

Having a professional kitchen and Passyunk proximity are great for business, but Miller has much more on his agenda than a booming taco trade. Although he and Martinez are married and she can legally stay in the States, she does not have a green card, meaning that basics like a driver’s license and a bank account are out of reach. In order to get a green card, Martinez would have to return to Mexico and live there for 10 years.

“The only thing that I can do is be an advocate for immigration reform and use the business as a platform. That’s something that I try to talk to my customers about,” Miller says. “Now that we have a space we can try to open up a dialogue. I think the chefs and people who work in the restaurant industry need to stand behind undocumented workers because that’s their compañeros.”

South Philly Barbacoa // 1703 S. 11th St. Open Sat.-Sun., 5 a.m.-5 p.m.