In South Philly, Ramadan Is a Time to Come Together for Tacos
Nothing about the quiet corner of Point Breeze Avenue suggests that a beloved community hub lies just a few paces down the street, nestled among a hair salon, a Chinese restaurant, a church, and condominiums that Swarthmore College graduate Amatullah Brown describes as "typical Point Breeze gentrification architecture." Brown is patiently awaiting sundown outside the United Muslim Masjid's annex location, where roughly 800 members of South Philadelphia's Muslim community learn, socialize, pray, and, during the month of Ramadan, come together for iftar, a meal to conclude a day of fasting.
Although Ramadan fasts are traditionally broken at the end of each day with dates and water, other than its timing at sundown, little else about the iftar meal is the same in every household; some families enjoy lavish, multicourse dinners, while others indulge in more humble fare. Tonight's iftar at UMM, however, is a special treat: a dinner catered as a gift to the community by South Philly Barbacoa, an award-winning Mexican restaurant a mile from the mosque. This feast is also special because it's the first Ramadan gathering since COVID-19 erupted in 2020, and Brown admits that observing the holiest month of the Muslim calendar in isolation has not been the same. Her mother, Katera Moore, who holds a PhD in earth and environmental science and is a lecturer in environmental public health at Gwynedd Mercy University and in environmental justice at the University of Pennsylvania, regularly attends UMM with her husband for Friday prayers and weekday lectures. Their anticipation is palpable as the sun sets and a van pulls up to the corner. Dinner has arrived.
Without ado, Ben Miller, who owns and operates the restaurant alongside his wife, chef Cristina Martínez, sets up two tables at the front of the main room, a sparse but inviting space with mint green walls. As the duo assembles portable heating lamps and readies their cleavers to slice succulent hunks of lamb barbacoa with practiced ease, men and women quietly divide and head upstairs for prayer. By the time they return, there's bright orange cantaloupe juice being ladled into cups and lamb barbacoa tacos being served on fresh corn tortillas with homemade salsas (recipes follow). Epazote gets sprinkled into piping hot bowls of consommé, a soul-soothing soup made from chickpeas, barbacoa, and pancita, a chile-spiced grind of organ meat and turkey stuffed in lamb stomach. In 2019, to make their restaurant more inclusive to the local community, Miller and Martínez decided to make the entire menu at South Philly Barbacoa halal, omitting pork entirely.
There's also the warmth of scattered laughter and cheerful conversation being shared across tables as bowls empty and fill. This isn't the first or last time the community has broken bread together during Ramadan—but the simple joy of being cared for by a local institution like South Philly Barbacoa is palpable in every corner of the room.