South Philly Barbacoa
1149 S. 9th Street
Fans of this tiny place, just off Passayunk, start showing up at 5 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. They wait in line, patiently. They know something.
South Philly Barbacoa – which used to be Los Compadres and made a damned good meatball sandwich – now makes amazing barbacoa, which is slow-cooked lamb shoved into homemade corn tortillas. But only on weekends, starting Friday and ending when they’re sold out on Sunday afternoon.
We showed up on a recent chilly Sunday at 1:45 p.m. and the line outside was about 30 folks deep. Fortunately, the supply was still good. When we finally got through the front door, we saw co-owner Ben Miller swinging a meat cleaver behind a tiny counter, cutting chunks of lamb right off the carcass.
Miller, and wife/chef Cristina Martinez, told us they butcher the lamb themselves, then slow-cook them for more than a day in huge steamers. It comes out simple and tender, and magnificently tasty. The homemade tortillas come from corn grown in Lancaster County.
The tacos come unadorned, or “blanco.” You choose toppings from a nearby fixings station. We had one naked (the taco, not us) and it was incredible. We put some salsa and peppers on the next and it was even better.
There’s also a fascinating backstory here of politics and immigration, but I’ll leave you to ask that directly of Miller or Martinez. They’re not shy about talking, even as they’re putting together these amazing tacos.
Wiser food critics than I have raved about this place. Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the three best tacos in America. And Inquirer restaurant critic Craig Laban recently called it, “my current favorite taqueria in Philly.”
Alas, there’s no way this small shop – which has a handful of workers – could shut down on a Sunday to participate in my “Clash of the Titans” finals, which will be May 6 at Delaware Park Race Track and Casino. But get there. It’s worth the wait in line.