A Passyunk Square restauranteur known for her Mexican lamb dishes was named the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation on Monday night.
Christina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa on S 9th St. received the award at the foundation’s annual ceremony on Monday night in Chicago. She began the business known for its barbacoa tacos and lamb and chickpea consomme in 2014.
Martinez – a native of Capulhuac, Mexico – arrived in Philadelphia in 2009. She came to the U.S. to escape domestic violence and earn money to support her four children.
She began working as a pastry chef at Amis, a now-closed trattoria in Center City. This is where she met her eventual husband and business partner Ben Miller.
Martinez is an undocumented immigrant. She was fired after this status was revealed to her employer in 2014, which is why she’s now barred from applying for American citizenship.
This is one reason Martinez remains an activist for the undocumented immigrant community. She helped create a support group called the Popular Alliance For Undocumented Workers Rights which provided meals and other aid during the pandemic.
Martinez also shared her immigrant experience on “Mejor vete, Cristina,” a Spanish-language podcast about her life produced by Univision.
After she was fired, Martinez began working on the concept that would become South Philly barbacoa from her apartment in 2014.
The restaurant took off quickly, and in 2017 Martinez received her first nomination for the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic reward. She was nominated three more times between 2018 and 2020.
The James Beard Foundation had not held the award ceremony since 2019. It was called off in 2020 due to the pandemic, concerns about racial inequity and the questionable behavior of some chefs who had been recognized in the past.
Martinez was not the only South Philly chef nominated in her category this year. Jesse Ito of Royal Izakaya, a sushi restaurant, and Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon from Kalaya Thai Kitchen were both semi-finalists, as well.
Other eateries and restaurateurs from the region saw success in different categories this year.
Corinne’s Place, a soul food restaurant in Camden, received an America’s Classic Award from the foundation earlier this year. Those are given to long-standing eateries which are beloved by their communities. Past winners include John’s Roast Pork and Chef Vola’s.
Ellen Yin of Fork, a.kitchen, and High Street Hospitality was a finalist in the restaurateur of the year category on Monday night, but did not ultimately win.