Hidden behind a muraled exterior on 11th Street in South Philly is an unassuming taqueria, simply called “South Philly Barbacoa.” This restaurant, formerly a food truck, serves only two kinds of tacos. And they are perfection.
The term “barbacoa” is where the U.S. term “Barbecue” comes from referring to slow cooked meats, often entire sheep or pigs, over an open fire. South Philly Barbacoa sticks with this tradition: their lamb tacos include the entire lamb and guests can request what piece of meat they want in their tacos (every piece is delicious, but the belly and face are generally the first to go).
The barbacoa opens its doors at 5 a.m., and in their cart days it was not uncommon for the lamb to sell out before noon. In addition to their lamb tacos, they also offer a slow cooked pork taco chopped together with peppers, onions and spices. For beverages they offer fresh juices in flavors like pineapple,orange and guava juice.
All of their tacos are served straight from the cutting block in their purest form: meat packed onto a tortilla with no toppings. From there they have a small table, almost a salad bar of taco toppings, with everything from fresh lime wedges and chipotle sauce, to (free) homemade guacamole and sauteed cactus (it’s the best, trust me), to name a few.
Their two taco offerings fill very different roles. The lamb is juicy, correctly cooked and overall amazing; I cannot say enough about how perfectly simple and basic the it is. It melts in your mouth. The pork is a different wheelhouse with strong flavor. It’s not as juicy but in no way lesser to the lamb.
When I go to the barbacoa, I tend to get two of each taco. As for toppings, whenever I can get cactus, I do. Everything else I like to mix and match, trying everything on the table without putting too many different toppings on one taco. This way the flavors of meat at the bottom still come through beautifully.
Now down to the nitty-gritty: South Philly Barbacoa is only open on weekends, Friday-Sunday. They open at 5 a.m. and close when they run out of food, which I gather happens daily around 3 p.m. Both varieties of taco are $4 and packed with meat, plus free guacamole and cactus.
The restaurant itself seats around 30 people, so it’s not very large. You can always take your tacos to go, as the Passyunk area is ripe with shops and parks. It’s also filled with hipsters, but don’t worry, they are also just there for the tacos.