Immigrant Advocacy and Empowerment through Lamb Barbacoa

I fell in love with Chef Cristina Martínez, a Mexican immigrant currently living in Philadelphia, while watching the first episode of season five of Chef’s Table on Netflix.

Martínez left her home to come to the United States to escape a violent and oppressive husband and to earn a living to pay for school for her daughter. This determined chef arrived in search of a better life with a deep knowledge of Mexican traditions and cuisine but without a visa or green card. As an undocumented immigrant, she faced a difficult passage into the country and financial, employment and legal hardships. She cannot return to Mexico to see her daughter because she would not be allowed to re-enter the United States. The US government will not allow her daughter to visit her mother in the United States. The separation of family seems unnecessarily cruel and punitive to me.

After settling in Philadelphia, she worked in area kitchens where she met her future husband, Benjamin Miller. When her boss fired her upon learning her undocumented immigrant status, she began making and selling lamb barbacoa from her home on Sundays to friends and fans of her cooking. For Martínez, barbacoa represents quality time spent with family and loved ones over a special and comforting meal. Her business quickly outgrew her small apartment. She and her husband later opened a restaurant in South Philly which earned national acclaim from Bon Appétit. The magazine placed South Philly Barbacoa at #6 in their top ten new restaurants in the nation for 2016. I regret missing an opportunity to sample her barbacoa during my visit to Philadelphia earlier this year.

Many restaurateurs practice a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy when it comes to immigration status and employing workers. Martínez uses her compelling story to publicize the plight of immigrant workers in the restaurant industry. Her restaurant connects food, family, and community in ways which call attention to the current untenable immigration policy of the United States. She says “I believe food has a lot of power . . . through food  . . . . we can find home.”

She inspires me to advocate for sensible immigration policy reform and continue to support organizations like Latino Memphis, a local non-profit which engages in advocacy and education for the Latino community in the Midsouth.

Chef Martínez also moved me to experiment with lamb barbacoa in my home kitchen with family and friends. On a Sunday morning, I did not have time to properly marinate the lamb or source maguey leaves from an agave plant for wrapping the meat like Martínez and her family would do. My attempt fell short of her skills and family traditions in Mexico, but we deeply enjoyed recreating a version of this delicious treat within a short time frame.

I considered Martínez’s process as explained in the Chef’s Table episode along with other sources for the following recipe. With no access to a pit to smoke the meat, I used a Camerons stovetop smoker to make a spicy and smokey leg of lamb for tacos (see other recipes using this smoker). I substituted banana leaves for the maguey leaves as a shortcut since maguey leaves require extra preparation to make them pliable enough to wrap the meat.

I served the lamb barbacoa with a homemade salsa verde, pickled red onions, sliced avocado, fresh cilantro and lime wedges. Save extra salsa verde for leftovers or for your scrambled eggs with breakfast (so good!).

My version of barbacoa received good reviews at our table, but I noticed differences. The meat was tender and juicy but drier than what I recall from the Chef’s Table video. Traditional barbacoa involves use of steam as a cooking agent compared to dryer Southern barbecue methods. In the future, I plan to marinate the lamb for 24 hours in orange juice, garlic, peppers and other spices before smoking and steaming. I also hope to source and prepare maguey leaves for the barbacoa to add the bitter flavor that Martínez describes in her method.

Lamb Barbacoa

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Print


  • 4-5 Lbs Leg of lamb (bone in)
  • Juice of one orange
  • Long banana leaf, split along stem
  • 4 slices of orange
  • 1 Tbsp oak wood chips


  • 2 Tbsp Kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp ancho chile powder
  • 1 Tbsp chipotle chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp ground cardamom
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano, Mexican if available
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves

Salsa Verde:

  • 3/4 Lbs tomatillos, cleaned and rinsed.
  • 1 white or yellow onion, quartered
  • 2 Serrano chiles, slice long ways
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 10 sprigs cilantro, stalks chopped below leaves
  • 1 tbsp. canola or corn oil
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Pickled Onions:

  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced along stem
  • 1 cup + white vinegar
  • 2 tsp kosher salt


  • 20 sprigs cilantro
  • 3 avocados, thinly sliced
  • 2 limes cut into wedges
  • 18 small corn tortillas


  1. Dry leg of lamb with paper towels and then pour orange juice over lamb in a large bowl.
  2. Assemble all ingredients for the rub.
  3. Cover the lamb with rub. Place orange slices on one side of lamb. Wrap lamb tightly in banana leaves to help retain moisture while ensure that orange slices face upward. Place on rack within in Camerons stovetop smoker. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Place smoker on stove on medium heat for 30 minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 250F.
  5. Place ingredients from tomatillos through garlic in pot and add cold water to just cover vegetables. Bring water to a boil and allow to boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
  6. Drain vegetables but reserve half the water. Add vegetables, reserved fluid and cilantro to vitamin or blender. Blend until smooth (~60 seconds).
  7. Heat oil in pot used to boil vegetables. Add blended sauce to pot and simmer for 20 minutes. Add salt to taste. Cover and remove from heat.
  8. Place smoker in oven on mid rack for 3 hours. If you want your lamb medium rare, check the temperature with a thermometer during the last hour, pierce the banana leaves to the center of the meat and stop cooking once the internal temperature reaches 145F.
  9. Combine all ingredients for pickled onion in a ceramic bowl and stir. Cover while lamb roasts in oven.
  10. Remove lamb from oven and allow meat to rest for at least 20 minutes. While meat rests, warm tortillas in a ceramic container with a lid and a few drops of water.
  11. Remove lamb from smoker to a cutting board. Use two forks too separate meat from bone into bite-size pieces.
  12. Serve lamb on warm tortillas with pickled onions, salsa verde, cilantro, avocado, and lime wedges.

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