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Barbacoa and community support at El Compadre in Philadelphia

Jun 15, 2018

Photo: Cristina Martinez and Francis Lam with the full spread
of barbacoa, salsa, and accompaniments at El Compadre.

One of the highlights of The Splendid Table’s recent trip to Philadelphia was going to El Compadre, a family restaurant that got its start as an informal, in-home restaurant called South Philly Barbacoa. As awe-inspiring as the barbacoa was, the chef, Cristina Martinez was even more so. There are letters from the city council honoring her for her activism on the walls, and there’s a photo of Martin Luther King hanging by the kitchen. Francis Lam talked with Martinez about what her cooking means to her, and to her community. Special thanks to our Associate Producer Erika Romero for translating their interview.

Francis Lam: Thank you, Cristina, for having us here at El Compadre. This is a beautiful spread of barbacoa. Can you describe what barbacoa is and how you serve it?

Cristina Martinez: Barbacoa is a lamb, and it has seven pieces. Over here, we have the ribs, the shoulder, and the neck. Here we have some consommé, a soup that has rice, garbanzos, a bit of epazote, which is an herb. Over here we have green and red salsa, onions, cilantro that we clean and wash very well. The barbacoa is a traditional food from Guerrero and Hidalgo and my hometown in Mexico. Having barbacoa basically means family and getting the family together in reunion to share this dish.

FL: You take the whole lamb, you break it down into the pieces – shoulder, ribs. Then you marinate it. The aroma is incredible; it’s a beautiful aroma. I can smell the aguacate leaves. You marinate it for eight hours and then – you steam, bake it, roast it?

CM: A couple hours in the steam, because to cure it here is very difficult. It’s hard to dig a hole here to make it, and so we do their best they can.

FL: And how did you learn?

CM: By generation. I learned when I was younger. There's five generations in my family that are making this kind of food.

FL: When did you start making barbacoa in Philadelphia?

CM: I got married. Then right after I got married, I got fired and needed to make money to pay for bills and support my family. I just had to look for work and started working. I started selling barbacoa in her apartment, illegally at first, just to make money. Then there was an American man who came in and he took photos, and he said, “You really need to make something out of this.”

FL: Who is coming in for it, who came to enjoy this food?

CM: It was a mainly the Latino community, In the beginning, I was scared to open it for an American to come in to my apartment and see what I was doing. Then finally somebody came in and they're like, “Okay, we're safe. We're good.” It was a nerve-wracking experience.

FL: This was a very informal thing you were doing, but it also sounds like it became important within the community, where people felt like they could come and taste the barbacoa that maybe they had had from where they were from and couldn't have here otherwise.

CM: It was something that they never tasted; they haven't seen a station set up like this. It also brought people because it was very intimate and emotional to see a woman with a machete cut the meant, and to see how it's prepared. When it's in a much fancier establishment or a regular restaurant, it's done in the back. But to see me chopping and how I’m doing right now, just serving it in a tortilla, it brings emotion, it intrigues people to come in and check it out.

FL: It feels like this is family cooking. This is home.

CM: In our own origin countries – whether that's China or Mexico – we can open the door to our own home and sell food, but somewhere like in the United States, it's not something that you can really do easily.

FL: That's so interesting, because we think the experience of restaurants, the ambience and the decor, we think about the quality of the food, the skill of the cooking and the quality of ingredients. But for so many people, they come from places where that's not what eating is really about. Eating is about this feeling of being in a particular kind of place, and it sounds like you’ve created that kind of place, where it feels, essentially, like an extension of your home.

CM: The familiar experience that we're talking about is that I get to see my customers, I get to meet people them one-on-one and look at them in the eye. I get to see if they would like more, so that they know that I’m doing this for them.

This space is welcome to everybody; I welcome everybody to come here. I make all sorts of food.   It’s not just for Mexicans or American; it's for everyone.

FL: Did the feeling of that intimate community change when you became popular? You came to your own space and opened restaurants. Then magazines and journalist started coming to you. You started to develop a different crowd. Did the feeling change?

CM: It's always been a compromise for me not to change. I always given it my all, whether that was just intimate or with other people. Recently, after my son passed away, it's been a little difficult, but our family is still doing our best to give their all to everybody.

FL: You've been very outspoken about American immigration policies and about being an undocumented person. I heard some of your clientele – because they come to this very intimate space, but who are maybe undocumented themselves – when they start realizing this was popular and there was attention drawn to it, maybe they didn't want to come anymore. How did that make you feel?

CM: I’ve always taken note of, and it's very conscious to me, the folks that do travel and feel like they are making a risk to come see me and the restaurant. People come from very far; I’ve always been very conscious of that. But also, with the recent presidency of Donald Trump and all that's been going on, there’s been a lot more tension where I notice that people just don't leave their homes. That has been hard. But I say, “No. We have to get out; we have to be out. We can't be enslaved and we can't stay hidden. We have to go out and eat. We have to go out and live. We have to enjoy barbacoa. We can't hide; we shouldn't hide.”