Sunday barbacoa: Ethnic eating in the cosmopolitan metropolis

Outside Acapulco restaurant on 9th Street, below Washington Ave.

It’s Sunday morning. You’re a bit hungover: bleary, maybe, but above all, hungry. You pull on your jacket, then scrounge for your wallet and sunglasses before taking those first tentative steps down 9th Street.

Walking south–just before you get a whiff of the storefronts where Vietnamese customers buy live chickens and doves (but well south of the throngs of yuppies waiting for a gratuitously overpriced frittata at Sabrina’s on Christian Street)–you’ll hear the thud of ranchera music blasting out of street-facing speakers. Even hungrier now, the earthy fragrance of fresh masa and blackened guajillo peppers beckons you southward…

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(Thanks for letting me indulge in some second-person novelistic pretension.)

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But seriously, take a walk through the putative “Italian Market,” south of Washington Ave, until you hit the section now dominated by Mexican restaurants, tiendas, distance-calling/internet shops and paleterias.

If you can, go on a Sunday, when the tacquerias run by immigrants from Puebla (in south-central Mexico) are selling barbacoa–slow-braised goat that’s been seasoned with cumin, garlic and ground chiles. Eat it with a stack of warm tortillas, dipping little bundles into a soup made rich from the goat’s juices. Garnish with roasted poblanos (rajas) and some lime or just with a bit of onion, cilantro and salsa verde. Repeat.

While you’re eating, think deeply about why, exactly, you’re there. It may have started with an off-hand tip from Drew Lazor  (the City Paper food writer), but consider why you thought a curious lack of Yelp reviews might bode well. Could this be the new spot, one step ahead of the more adventurous South Philly foodies?

Horchata.

But that question begs still more: What kind of authenticity-seeking are you up to–and what are the costs? What type of erasures–of the chef’s ethnic and regional origins, of her own experience of modernity, of the complicated history behind supposed “original” and “pure” food–are you endorsing?

Above all, which privileges (class, education, cosmopolitanism) are you re-affirming by looking for the next-most-authentic-place?

Is the ability to taste, enjoy (and talk about) such a range of cuisines–from this barbacoa feast to the fishy stank of Cambodian porridge–just the post-modern equivalent of Victorian bourgeois self-superiority? Are you no better than the English couple from the illustration in Diner’s book, mocking an Irish woman for serving “undressed tomatoes”? Or are you something different altogether?

Taking another sip of horchata only muddles the issue.

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