From Bon Appetit: An Undocumented Mexican Chef Runs One of the Country’s Best New Restaurants

Bon Appetit, August 24, 2016

At South Philly Barbacoa, Cristina Martinez’s food sells out before sundown. Here’s her story.

At South Philly Barbacoa, #6 on our Hot 10 list of America’s Best New Restaurants, Cristina Martinez’s slow-cooked lamb tacos sell out before sundown. The tiny restaurant, which began in Martinez and her husband Ben Miller’s one-bedroom apartment and then a taco cart, fills up with Mexican families, restaurant and construction workers at the end of their shifts, and taco superfans. Her food reminds people of home, and home is Mexico.

Martinez emigrated to the U.S. years ago, crossing the desert in unimaginable heat and at a dangerous risk. She fell in love with Miller when they worked in a restaurant in Philadelphia together, a restaurant that would soon fire her when they discovered her undocumented status. The difficulty of finding a job after that led her to start making pigs’ brain quesadillas and selling them to workers at the Italian Market in the mornings. Then she told her customers, I’m making barbacoa at my home this Sunday, and waited to see what would happen. If they didn’t sell, she wouldn’t do it again. They sold out.


“This is something that can be achieved only through struggle, perseverance, and hard work,” said Martinez, whose decision to declare her status puts her business and livelihood at risk, but whose success has been an inspiration to the Mexican community in Philly.

“We try to use the good publicity we get to talk about the truth in the restaurant industry,” said Miller, who wrote that they’re willing to face the consequences. The undocumented status is complicated, said Martinez, putting it lightly. In order to apply for a green card, she would have to move back to Mexico, and face a 3 to 10 year ban from the U.S. They’ve used their place in the food spotlight to point to these issues, organizing within the community and on Twitter with the hashtag #right2work. “We are not in hiding,” wrote Miller, “The best thing is to just get the truth out there.”