Check In is a new, occasional feature where we … uh, check in with a recently opened restaurant. Not a review, per se, but hey, you get the idea. Have an idea for a Check In? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is entirely possible to live in the heart of South Philly and never notice the food cart at 8th and Watkins that’s serving up some of the city’s best Mexican food. That would be a mistake.
But I almost did. And I was looking for it. The only sign facing 8th Street last week was a small piece of brown cardboard with the word BARBACOA written on it. My kind of place.
South Philly Barbacoa is a Sunday-only operation run by husband-and-wife duo Benjamin Miller and Cristina Martinez. They start serving at 6 a.m. – dinnertime for their night-shift customers – and stop when they sell out, usually around 1 p.m.
The cart has been open each Sunday since Jan. 26 and it’s doing well. Initial plans for a restaurant didn’t pan out, but Miller said it’s definitely a possibility in the future. They both have full-time jobs – Miller at Kanella and Martinez at Los Rosa’s bakery, located on the same corner as their cart.
“When we can’t control the capacity with the truck anymore, we’ll have to switch to a spot. As the business grows, we’ll make adjustments,” Miller said. “We’re just barely breaking into the American market. Our customer base is blue-collar Mexican families.”
It’s kind of like a Bizarro Geno’s Steaks: Not only is there no sign commanding you to order in English, but everyone is speaking Spanish. Fortunately, this is not a problem for me, a dumb monolingual American; Miller is from Easton.
The food is extremely common in Martinez’s hometown of Toluca, Mexico, but everyone has their own spin on the traditional recipes, Miller said. Like, say, Jimi Hendrix sheet music. “It’s going to sound different depending on who’s playing,” he said.
Reyes nodded enthusiastically in a Mikey-likes-it kind of way as customers huddled under the awning to avoid the rain. Later, she described the consommé as “properly spicy.” (Hey, they don’t pay her to write food reviews, OK?)
Anyway, South Philly Barbacoa is delicious and cheap. There’s a reason that Mexican restaurants call them for delivery.
Stop by on a Sunday for $3 tacos. Ask for nopales (cactus pads) on the barbacoa. Or grab a whole kilo package for $60, which serves about five and includes meat over a maguey leaf, tortillas, diced onions, nopales, chopped cilantro, limes or lemons, salsa roja and salsa verde. And two quarts of consommé. Sold!
Martinez and Miller will also be doing a Cinco de Mayo pop-up at Tap Room on 19th. Or catch them at Garage on April 25. And find them on Facebook here.
– Bill Bender, @wbender99