October 05, 2016
One day after the merriment of National Taco Day in the U.S., the co-owner of one of Philadelphia's most decorated Mexican restaurants blasted a new rival for allegedly wheedling culinary secrets from her and debasing the ethnic value of her culture's signature cuisine.
In an op-ed published Wednesday on The Huffington Post, South Philly Barbacoa co-owner Cristina Martinez slammed the group behind Rittenhouse newcomer Mission Taqueria, a concept launched by Oyster House founder Sam Mink.
Weeks before this restaurant opened, a group of men from Mission Taqueria came into my restaurant and ordered half a kilo of barbacoa. They asked me all types of questions, “How many grams of cal (lime) do you put in your water to make your nixtamal?”, “What cuts of lamb do you use for your barbacoa?”, “Where do you buy it?”. They asked me, “What do you use to keep your tortillas so fresh?” At that point, I felt a bit paranoid and could not communicate with them efficiently in English, so I chose to walk into the kitchen to grab my tortilla press, and to my surprise this crew followed me into my kitchen. They never presented themselves, never said who they were or where they came from; they could’ve said I’m this person from this place - they weren’t invited into my kitchen.
The essay goes on to question the authenticity of Mission Taqueria and its integrity for appropriating a barbacoa style whose roots come from hardworking and often indigent families.
Producers, especially chefs, need to focus on their product, its history, its cultural perceptions, its underlying meanings. Tacos play a very prominent role in my culture. Sure, in essence, they constitute protein in a good tortilla. But more than anything, they represent the act of gathering and eating with your family. They represent enjoying good company and replenishing your body. My people eat tacos after a hard day’s work, but these days some people are turning tacos into the newest foodie cash crop.
Since opening in July 2015 at 1703 S. 11th St. in the East Passyunk neighborhood, South Philly Barbacoa has merited national acclaim for its tacos, earning a place on Bon Appétit's "Hot Ten" restaurants of 2016 and ranking among the magazine's top three tacos in the country.
In mid-August, about the time Mission Taqueria opened at 1516 Sansom St. in Center City, South Philly Barbacoa announced it would be cutting its hours to weekends only and removing tortas from the menu except for special occasions.
Since the op-ed was was published, Brett Naylor, chef at Oyster House and a partner at Mission Taqueria, has responded to Matinez's accusations.
"As a chef, I go out to eat for inspiration," Naylor said. "That's what drives the industry and drives me professionally. I looked to Cristina and what she does as inspiration. I was inspired. Same thing goes for all of the other restaurants I visit. When you're inspired, you immerse yourself."
Martinez's allegation of recipe theft against Mission Taqueria's owners – even if it were proven to be true – is not a criminal matter. According to the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, while the name of a particular dish at a restaurant can be trademarked, the recipe used to make it cannot.
Still, John Longcrest, PRLA CEO and president, noted Martinez taking to the web and speaking out against Mission Taqueria is unprecedented.
"This is the first time we've heard of someone calling someone out in an op-ed," Longcrest said. "It's between two independent restaurants."
Ben Miller, Martinez's husband and the other co-owner of South Philly Barbacoa, told PhillyVoice that his wife doesn't want a war.
"She's a sweet lady. She only fights with me," Miller said jokingly.
Martinez and Miller believe there are social, cultural and political issues involved that need to be handled with respect.
"They had been coming in as customers to dine here for several weeks before the incident Cristina described," said Miller, who helped translate Martinez's Huffington Post article from Spanish into English. "Our restaurant is open for everybody, but these guys had intentions. Our whole crew here was upset."
"We don't want a restaurant to come in, roll over us and not expect us to say anything back. There's so much time and experience that's gone into our barbacoa that for someone to try to take it is really devaluing the culture." – Ben Miller, co-owner, South Philly Barbacoa
Miller explained that guarding recipes is essential to South Philly Barbacoa's uniqueness as a restaurant whose featured dish is a regional and community specialty.
"We've been protecting our sources and recipes since day one," Miller said. "We're not trying to publicize this stuff. We have to keep our cards close to the vest. We tell that to even the most prominent food critics, people from Bon Appétit and film crews. We're very careful because (barbacoa) is all we do. We have a small menu and we have to do what can to protect our living."
Mexican barbacoa, a family cookout or meal usually reserved for the weekends, generally consists of goat meat or lamb slow-cooked over an open fire, or a hole in the ground covered in maguey leaves. It's high in fat and typically accompanied by cilantro, onions and spicy condiments. The tradition reaches back generations and means the world to Martinez for reasons that transcend the culinary arts.
"We're open to all kinds of dialogue and collaboration, to educate people on the richness of the culture," Martinez said. "We're a place where Mexican families bring their kids to share the tacos and experience their culture. Every different race and age of people comes in here, but the rock solid foundations are the Mexican families. It's close to our heart."
Beyond the alleged covert nature of Mission Taqueria's visits, this is why South Philly Barbacoa decided to take such a strong stance. Martinez has been cooking authentic barbacoa her whole life. It's the one thing she can do to make it in America without a green card.
Martinez crossed the Mexican border and entered the U.S. illegally in 2006. She returned to Mexico briefly and then came back to the U.S., again unlawfully, in 2009. Because of the back and forth, Martinez is ineligible for a green card unless she were to return to Mexico for 10 years and then reapply.
That restriction even supersedes Martinez's marriage to Miller, who is a U.S. citizen. She can legally own her business without citizenship. She just can't get a job from someone else, unless she's paid under the table.
"It's a legal marriage and the fact that Philadelphia has the best sanctuary city laws in the country, she can't just be picked up on a silly offense," Miller said. "The police won't communicate with (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for a deportation hearing unless there's a felony of a certain degree."
An attorney who works with the couple refers to the situation generally as the "lobster trap," because immigration laws make it easier for a person to stay in the United States illegally — working without rights — than to go back to his or her home country and wait.
Miller and Martinez weighed their options about how to respond to Mission Taqueria. Martinez had met Naylor in the local restaurant world a handful of times before he and his group came uninvited into the kitchen at South Philly Barbacoa.
"They probably saw Cristina as someone they might be able to extract some information from, an easy target or something like that," Miller said. "She certainly wasn't. She's dealt with this kind of thing before and spotted it from a mile away. She was upset. These guys are chefs and they were taking our stuff."
Miller said he called Naylor, who tried to explain that it was a misunderstanding and that they shouldn't be upset. But Miller and Martinez felt that Mission Taqueria needed to publicly acknowledge and apologize for what happened.
"I would not open a restaurant that I didn't believe in as a cook. I don't believe in these very black-and-white viewpoints. I'm passionate about Mexican cuisine. ... I know in my heart I respect the Mexican culture and in particular Philadelphia's Mexican citizens." – Brett Naylor, partner at Mission Taqueria
Stephanie Otterson, communications director for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, agreed Mission Taqueria's tactics were questionable.
"Had they identified themselves and their intentions, it probably would have gone a long way toward furthering collaboration, despite their status as competitors," Otterson said. "It's one thing to be competitive and make the best barbacoa around. That's capitalism in this industry. To be shady about it is not the way things should be. They could have been more forthright."
That's what bothered Miller as a professional and as a husband.
"We don't want a restaurant to come in, roll over us and not expect us to say anything back," Miller said. "There's so much time and experience that's gone into our barbacoa that for someone to try to take it is really devaluing the culture. It devalues what we represent."
While restaurants are bound try to outdo one another in the kitchen, Martinez and Miller feel the incident exceeds friendly business competition.
"We didn't go through with this because of the publicity this would bring our restaurant, for God's sake," Miller said. "Or because Mission Taqueria is hurting our business. This is how we felt. Cristina really elevates barbacoa and believes it deserves respect. We wanted to express how we felt because it's an important conversation."
On the eve of National Taco Day, Martinez and Miller ate at Mission Taqueria to see what its chefs were doing, in part to better explain their issue. When they got home, Martinez recorded a video of her thoughts and that was the foundation for the op-ed.
"I don't think they were expecting to be called out," Miller said. "We've always tried to do positive things with the press and we knew we would probably take a hit for this from some people. It's not an easy thing to do."
After being contacted by PhillyVoice on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for Mission Taqueria provided with the following statement, published in its entirety below:
We read the op-ed written in this morning's Huffington Post, and completely respect and hear where Cristina Martinez is coming from. As soon as we read it, we reached out to her directly to offer a personal apology, but her husband and partner (Ben Miller) answered, and would not allow her to speak to us. Instead, he demanded a public apology from Mission.
When we visited South Philly Barbacoa a few months ago, Cristina stopped by our table as she and Brett (Naylor) had met socially several times before. We had a very friendly conversation and did as chefs in this community do: we talked methods, ingredients and flavor. Everything was delicious, and she was more than gracious, offering us some complimentary sweet tamales. On our way out she asked how business was going (at Oyster House) and wished us luck on our upcoming restaurant (Mission Taqueria).
As chefs, we experience and learn through eating. We share ideas, read cookbooks, and travel to other restaurants to learn more about food and the cultures responsible for it. This is something that happens in all creative industries, not just the culinary world. To be fair, we also visited many other Mexican restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Mexico City. Similarly, we've welcomed researching chefs from all over the country to Oyster House who look to grow and build their seafood restaurants and oyster bars.
We created Mission for many reasons, but mainly because we enjoy the regional cooking of Mexico. Any suggestion that our food and our aims aren't fueled by our passion is completely unfounded, and hurtful honestly. The amount of time and effort and energy and love that has been put into the creation of Mission Taqueria is tremendous, and not to be discounted. It should be clarified too, that we did not set out to claim ours as purely authentic Mexican cuisine. We took our inspiration and combined it with our passion and talent to present to Philadelphia our interpretation on this beautiful culture.
We respect the culinary community of Philadelphia, and look forward to its future where we hope creativity is fostered and ideas are shared freely. We certainly will continue to do our part on that level.
PhillyVoice shared the statement with Martinez and Miller, who responded.
"I was just a husband protecting my wife from any harassment," Miller said of his decision not to put Martinez on the phone when Naylor called. "That's kind of what husbands do."
Naylor, contacted Thursday by PhillyVoice, said the kitchen incident in question occurred on a Saturday in July after he and Mission Taqueria chef Andrew Sabin saw an interesting post on South Philly Barbacoa's Instagram. They decided to stop by, finding only Cristina at the restaurant with a few employees.
"We were the only table in there and she was at our table," Naylor said. "We were just talking about food. There was camaraderie. At one point we asked her where her molina was in her kitchen and she had a swoosh, follow-me-type movement with her arm."
South Philly Barbacoa doesn't have an open kitchen, but the staff area begins just beyond the point where patrons place their orders. Naylor says he and Sabin didn't get more than two feet into the kitchen before Martinez spun around, startled, and told them they did not have permission to enter.
Naylor said he and Sabin apologized profusely on the spot and their meal continued. Martinez even wished them luck as they left, he said. Despite attempts, Naylor said he has not been able to reach Martinez personally. His exchanges with Miller have been tense.
"The invitation to turn this into a positive relationship is still extended to her because I respect and admire what she does," Naylor said, but added the same offer is not extended to Miller.
Martinez feels if Mission Taqueria isn't claiming to serve "purely authentic Mexican cuisine," then they should drop the name barbacoa from their menu, "case closed."
She and Miller believe the controversy is a microcosm of the state of the food press and the political climate in this country.
"We don't just want to throw stones," Miller said. "Restaurant and food media tend to remain very neutral on political issues, yet they're really very present within the labor force of so many restaurants. It's a family back there. They have the authority to speak on these issues."
"We're not just going to try to ride the success and make money without doing something to help," Miller continued. "We try to organize our resources to represent communities that are oppressed by our laws and our systems. At the very basic level, we want working people to have dignity and protection from exploitation and abuses, so that American businesses can't just wash their hands of it."
Naylor said he supports South Philly Barbacoa's activism around immigrants "100 percent" and would love to be a part of that. He's less receptive to the idea striking "barbacoa" from Mission Taqueria's menu.
"I would ask if they have approached the other restaurants in the area that have barbacoa on their menu?" Naylor said. "Chipotle has it. There's Barbacoa of Ardmore. Have they approached them?"
He also rejects the suggestion that he's devaluing Mexican people and their culture.
"I would not open a restaurant that I didn't believe in as a cook," Naylor said. "I don't believe in these very black-and-white viewpoints. I'm passionate about Mexican cuisine. The circumstances are not all or nothing. I know in my heart I respect the Mexican culture and in particular Philadelphia's Mexican citizens."
What comes next — an apology, a debate, a battle — remains to be seen.
"A lot of food media runs articles around places that have these PR companies," Miller said, "and the question is whether the media fairly reflects people of color in the kitchen and in the back. Do they have that kind of access? We want a dialogue that is going to be critical, yes, but comes with a hope that things will get better. We're not saying 'white people' can't cook whatever they want. No, it's just that there's a certain amount of care you need to take when it comes to culture."