South Philly Barbacoa to close as it moves to Italian Market

Cristina Martinez, left, and Ben Miller, right, photographed at South Philly Barbacoa, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016, in Philadelphia. On the table are two tacos, a bowl of consommé, and a half kilo of lamb. As well as fresh squeezed juices. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller announced on social media that South Philly Barbacoa, her acclaimed Mexican eatery, will close after business on June 25 as she consolidates her operation seven blocks away at sister restaurant El Compadre, at 1149 S. Ninth St. in the Italian Market.

“We prefer to work in the same space,” Miller said in an interview. He identified his wife as the sole proprietor and chef, preferring the title “field manager” for himself. Miller heads the organization Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights, and proudly pointed out that Martinez is undocumented.

The Ninth Street restaurant, selling the lamb barbacoa, tortas, consome, and guisados (stews) of Martinez’s native Mexico, will retain the name El Compadre, ending a chapter in the couple’s lives that began in February 2014 with a food cart parked near their home at Eighth and Watkins Streets.

South Philly Barbacoa drew city scrutiny and grumbling among some neighbors as it found an appreciative audience of foodies and Mexican immigrants. The cart was disbanded when the couple went the brick-and-mortar route in mid-2015 with the colorfully tiled restaurant at 1703 S. 11th St.

Martinez then helped her son, Isaias Berriozabal-Martinez, open El Compadre, a shop specializing in tortas, last October. Less than three months later, he collapsed and died at age 23.

Bon Appetit named South Philly Barbacoa as one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2016. Earlier this year, the couple were a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for best chef, Mid-Atlantic.

“We were very successful with South Philly Barbacoa, like we had a hit record,” said Miller. “Now we are trying to come out with another smash hit. I want to get four bells,” referring to Inquirer critic Craig LaBan’s top rating.

“It’s a fresh project for us to build out,” Miller said. “I don’t feel we can grow in South Philly Barbacoa, and the story behind El Compadre is more compelling and it fills us with a sense of purpose to have a thriving business which can bring more traffic to that corridor on Ninth Street.”

The restaurant is open for barbacoa from 5 a.m. till sellout on weekends, and operates from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday with tortas, guisados, and tortillas.