Queen of BBQ, voice of the undocumented
Chef Cristina Martinez, owner of El Compadre, has not only conquered Philadelphia with the delicious flavors of her Mexican cuisine — she has also become a staunch advocate for undocumented immigrants working in the city's food sector.
A pioneer of Mexican cuisine in Philadelphia, Cristina Martinez is an example of Latino ingenuity and success in the States against all odds. “It all started with selling food in my apartment,” Martinez told me as we sat down to chat at El Compadre her bright, colorful restaurant in South Philly’s Italian Market.
As a new undocumented immigrant to the city a little over a decade ago, Martinez didn't have the funds to start up her own place so she started selling food from her home. Her cuisine became so popular she opened up a food cart and eventually saved enough money to rent a space for a restaurant. Since then she’s gone on to become an international culinary sensation profiled by giants such as Univision and Bon Appetit which named her first restaurant, South Philly Barbacoa, one of the ten best in the country.
Her specialty and claim to fame is barbacoa, a lamb dish specifically belonging to Toluca, her region of Mexico. The meat, usually served with consommé and pancita, is marinated for 8 hours, and then is given a little orange and salt before being cooked for 4-6 hours depending on the weather.
“People often travel long distances in search of the barbacoa,” said Alejandra Mendez, a server who's worked with Cristina for over 2 years. “They really love it.”
The menu options at Martinez’s El Compadre restaurant in the Italian Market vary depending on the products available. On any given day the offerings could range from rabbit to cow’s head to frog legs. However, there’s always a list of tortas, small sandwiches, available as well as vegetarian options for those who don’t eat meat.
“We want to educate people that there’s more than tortillas or carnitas,” Martinez explained.
For Martinez, it’s not just about making delicious fare, but bringing people together. The barbacoa is only served on weekends, just like in Mexico, because it serves as a weekly gathering place for family and friends.
“It’s a place where children, men and women feel reunited as if it were their home,” described Martinez.
The interior doubles as an art gallery with works of landscapes, tacos and portraits of “Dreamers” for sale. The restaurant also collaborates with local non-profits and organizations such as the End Mass Incarceration Dinner Series to host community events.
Ideally, Martinez would like to create a nearby kiosk that would give the neighborhood an open space to share. Families could gather there and kids could play freely.
However, her work extends far beyond the restaurant as a community organizer and activist. For the past several years Martinez, alongside her husband Ben Miller, has fought for the rights of undocumented restaurant workers across the country.
“The most important thing is to give respect to our workers for all the effort they put in to serve a dish, not just to make it beautiful, but to give it that touch of love,” said Martinez. “We are criminalized. We want to change this stereotype.”
In recognition of Martinez’s efforts, the mayor of Philadelphia has signed a document recognizing the positive contributions undocumented workers can make regardless of their status.
Martinez’s activism has taken on a special importance in the time of Trump whose election has wreaked havoc on Martinez’s customers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants.
“People that came from other cities no longer want to come,” said Martinez. “They know the food is good, but they don’t want to risk traveling for fear of being detained by the police.”
Nonetheless, Martinez and El Compadre still provide a unique taste of Mexican barbacoa not commonly found in the city often having to turn customers away.
You can catch more info about Martinez’s story in a new podcast series by Univision called “Mejor vete Cristina” (You better leave, Cristina) as well as on Netflix’s chef run Ugly Delicious series that profiles her fight for workers rights.