1149 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA
On weekends, this place serves a limited barbacoa menu (today there was also a choice of a chorizo/pork mixture) that can be purchased as individual tacos or by the half kilo (approximately 1 lb. for the metric-challenged.) The half kilo comes with a pile of house-made (from kernels, not masa flour) corn tortillas and a couple of bowls of spicy consomé de borrego (lamb soup.)
This is smack in the middle of 9th Street, in the area that tourists still refer to as the “Italian Market” despite there being a noticeable shortage of actual Italians.)
It is hard to miss, as a chubby Mexican in a wheelchair sits at a table on front of the door squeezing fresh oranges, melons and other fruits into agua fresca, and calls to passers-by in Spanish entreating them to go inside and partake of the barbacoa.
I understand that on weekdays, there is an actual, if somewhat limited menu, primarily tortas of shrimp, and tinga, and al pastor etc. But Saturdays and Sundays, the barbacoa draws crowds.
Upon entering, one immediately senses a clusterfuck as first- timers (which we were) attempt to figure out the process of ordering, getting seated, getting drinks and paying.
I discovered that I was more readily able to converse in my pathetic Spanish than interpret the friendly woman’s accent in English. It appears, one orders at the door (a station was set up where the proteins are chopped and weighed, and handed out. Takeout customers paid right then and there, while dine-in customers are handed a half kilo of steaming meat in a basket, and left to panic until one of the staff finds a seat for you. There are tables for groups of five or six, while couples mingle shoulder to shoulder with strangers at counters along the wall.
Once seated, you are brought an assortment of accompaniments (cactus, pickled peppers/carrots, cilantro, onion, limes and some smooth guacamole.) Homemade red and green salsas also show up in squeeze jars.
I noticed lots of customers had purchased their beverages outside and brought them in, but eventually, one of the watistaff asked if we needed any (in quite good English.) The melon aqua fresca was perfect… not too sweet, but also not unlike biting into a fresh melon.
Once all the stuff has arrived, it is just a matter of grabbing portions of protein, slapping it on a warm tortilla, picking the accompaniments, and digging in. The pork /chorizo was delightful… not TOO spicy, and not at all greasy (which was a surprise.) Unlike anything I’d ever tasted. The lamb was silky, braised tenderness, subtly seasoned, and not at all gamey.
The consomé de borrego was surprisingly spicy the longer it sat, but was a perfect compliment.. again, a flavor unlike chicken or beef broth, but not at all gamey.
Once we had finished, another couple immediately asked us (politely) “are you finished?” and instructed us that waiting around for a check was unnecessary. We surrendered our seats and brought cash up to the chopping/distribution station (which was also the paying station – and YES, different people handled meat and money.) It was more or less an honor system. We told them what we ordered and the bill came to $35.50. I gave her a pair of twenties and a few stray singles and we were on our way. We did stop by the tortilleria up the street to pick up a kilo (2.2 lbs.) of soft hot corn tortillas (for $2.50) which always seems like an incredible bargain to me.
I kind of miss the Italians, but there are still a few left selling pork and cheeses etc. A new generation of immigrants is bringing a new set of experiences and flavors to our little corner of the world. I’m pretty happy about it.