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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Exploring Mexican culture at Italian Market

The storefront of South Philly Barbacoa is decorated with a mosaic sign, located at 1140 S. 9th St. PHOTO: MAX KELLY ’24/THE HAWK

Marcos Tlacopilco is the kind of person I hoped to meet during my first excursion to Philadelphia’s famous Italian Market: an immigrant, a restaurant employee who worked his way up to owner and a colorful character.

What I hadn’t expected: Tlacopilco is Mexican.

“My community has a hunger,” Tlacopilco told me as he was closing up Alma del Mar on South 9th Street. “I am hungry, too, for the American dream. Some people say the American dream is not true. Sometimes people say they don’t know if it even existed, but I personally think it exists and what we need to do is work hard in life like the first immigrants coming here.”

Alma del Mar is Tlacopilco’s second business. It opened in 2020 and was designed with the help of the “Queer Eye” cast, which featured the restaurant on Season 5, Episode 8 of the Netflix series. His first business, which he started 25 years ago, is Marco’s Fish and Crab House, located down the block from Alma del Mar.

The South 9th Street Italian Market emerged from an increase in Italian immigrants to Philadelphia in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. Commercial development of Italian businesses officially began in 1915. Now, America’s oldest continually running outdoor market has about 200 vendors spread along 9th Street between Wharton and Fitzwater streets. Generations of immigrant merchants work and live in the area.

Cookie Ciliberti, manager of the South 9th Street Italian Market Visitor Center, was born and raised on 9th Street. She is half Italian and half Irish.

Ciliberti said the market is changing. She noted Mexican vendors started to become more present 25 years ago when people from the Pueblo region of Mexico began moving to the neighborhood.

“It’s always changing, there’s always an influx of new businesses,” Ciliberti said. “As old businesses leave, there’s always new businesses opening.”

Nicknamed Pueblodelphia, the majority of Mexican stores, stands and restaurants can be found on 9th Street between Washington Avenue and Federal Street.

One of the more well known of these restaurants is South Philly Barbacoa, located at 1140 S. 9th St. Owner Cristina Martinez won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic in 2022.

When I noticed an extensive line of people wrapped around the corner of a restaurant with a mosaic sign, I knew I was in the right place. Luckily, the long line did not entail a lengthy wait. I was ordering inside within five minutes, and in the next five minutes, I was adding toppings to the tacos so many people had raved about.

Barbacoa is a slow-cooked, shredded meat brisket, originating from Capulhuac, Mexico. The lamb barbacoa from South Philly Barbacoa has a citrus marinade, and can be ordered in burritos, quesadillas and tacos. The made-from-scratch white and blue corn tortillas cradling the meat helped make these the best tacos I’ve ever had.

Barbacoa tacos from South Philly Barbacoa garnished with lime, cilantro, onion and guacamole

At 1168 S. 9th St., I found ChocoArte, an art and gift shop owned by Eva Hernandez. As I perused the pottery, sculptures, clothing and more inside the store, Hernandez told me every product is imported directly from Mexico.

“I wanted to bring something bright, very colorful [to the market], and show my culture,” said Hernandez.

Hernandez said today, goods from a wide variety of cultures are available even though it’s still known as the “Italian” Market.

When I asked Hernandez what her favorite Mexican meal at the market was, she recommended the tacos al pastor (pork and pineapple) from Mole Poblano, located at 1144 S. 9th St.

At Mole Poblano, I was welcomed by manager Pedro Rio Sandoval, who confirmed the tacos al pastor were a great choice.

“Tacos al pastor is a specialty here, very delicious,” Rio Sandoval said. “We make the marinade from the start with all the different ingredients and lime juice. It comes out to be really great.”

Before my tacos arrived, I was given a spectacularly presented side of chips and salsa. The warm homemade chips were carefully assembled like logs in a fireplace, placed on top of refried beans and gently drizzled with sour cream and pico de gallo.

Rio Sandoval told me he lives in the neighborhood, and loves living and working on 9th Street because of the accepting, diverse and tight-knit community.

“Day by day, you see many different faces, different cultures,” Rio Sandoval said.

Tacos al pastor is one of my favorite Mexican dishes, and this was without a doubt the best I have had.

Tacos al pastor from Mole Poblano

While I came to the market thinking I would be eating Italian food and specialty stores, I walked out thoroughly impressed with the diversity of food and culture on 9th Street and the welcoming business owners.

That sat right with Tlacopilco.

“It’s kind of a tradition to have an open door for the new communities that come in here,” Tlacopilco said. “Italian is the foundation, that’s why they have the name Italian Market, but also the Vietnamese guys, the Chinese guys, and right now it’s the Spanish community.”

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Max Kelly
Max Kelly, Website Manager/Multimedia Editor
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