There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Anna Bran Leis has many goals for her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, not the least of which is “to make tacos and Champagne a thing by the end of summer.” The idea is that the effervescence of France’s best beverage will cut through the richness of any of Taqueria del Barrio‘s tacos when it opens later this month in the former Domku space in Petworth.
But Leis has another reason to drink Champagne whenever she pleases. After four wars with chemotherapy, she’s on an experimental trial to treat her cancer and is seeing a 70 percent reduction in her tumors.
“We’re doing a lot better than we’ve been doing in several years, so that’s why we decided to do it [open Taqueria del Barrio],” she says. Her husband, Shawn Leis, is a co-owner. “We’re in a good place for once. I got to see my kid graduate this year. There was a point when they told us it wouldn’t happen.”
Opening a restaurant has long been a dream for Leis, who Washingtonians know from DC Empanadas. But when she got sick, it was the first thing to go on the back burner. “Then D.C. became the it restaurant town, so a perfect space became even harder to come by,” she says. “We have the Stephen Starr’s of the world competing for all the big spaces in our little city. D.C.’s a small town.”
But when Domku shuttered, restaurateur Jamie Leeds, who owns Hank’s Cocktail Bar next door, goaded Leis into pursuing the location. Six months later the lease was a go and the transformation began. “The goal was to bring the outside in,” says Leis, who jokes that she likes al fresco dining, but sans the elements. The original floors in the main dining area give it a rustic feel and stringed lights also make it feel like you’re on a patio somewhere like San Diego.
What really makes the 92-seat space pop are tattoo-like murals by local artist Matthew McMillan. He captured a dramatic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in primary colors in the back room, which can be used for private events. In the main dining room, he painted elements of a Mexican children’s game called “Lotteria” that’s akin to B-I-N-G-O. They include el sol (the sun), la luna (the moon), and el corazón (the heart).
Leis hails from Guatemala, but she has always had strong feelings about what a Mexican restaurant should be. “I’m constantly complaining at the lack of really authentic Mexican places to eat,” she says. “You either get a hole in the wall where the food is phenomenal but you need to eat and go and you’re drinking Montezuma Tequila, or you have the [Richard] Sandoval places, but it’s a chain. Nobody wants that.” She does give props to Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana and admits to liking the lomo saltado at Lauriol Plaza.
Highlights from the food menu include queso fundito with Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese ($8.99); guacamole made fresh-to-order ($6.99); pozole stew ($4.99); 14 types of tacos served on house-made corn tortillas priced at $3 each; torta sandwiches ($8.99); and mole con pollo ($11.99). Leis’ favorite dish is the tongue taco that comes with radishes and onions. “They’re very simple tacos,” she says. “We won’t have a ton of toppings on them. That’s just not how tacos are served.” That said, Leis says she plans to serve some “gringo tacos” as a part of the bar’s taco Tuesday specials. “Everyone loves a crunchy taco.”
Bar manager Chris Martino formerly of Buffalo & Bergen, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, and Hank’s on the Hill, has crafted a series of amped up Latin cocktails to pair with the tacos (should you want to veer off the Champagne menu curated by Wines by Raz).
He’s especially proud of “Funny Cigarettes,” which is a twist on a Caipirinha with cachaça, Green Chartreuse, lime, sage, pineapple, and olive oil. Martino infuses olive oil with the dried pineapple and sage, then he sprays it into the drink creating pearls that taste like jazz cabbage smells (hence the name of the drink). Cocktails are priced $11-$14, but there will be a $5 punch and margarita during happy hour.
Taqueria del Barrio aims, above all else, to be a neighborhood restaurant and hopes to satisfy a need for family-friendly dining. “We wanted to make it reasonably kid-friendly because when you have kids you can’t go anywhere,” she says. Slim’s Diner is an option, but she feels Timber Pizza Co. can be a tight squeeze. “We had the stroller brigade when we did the pop-up next door,” Leis says.
When it open by the end of the month, the restaurant will serve dinner (Tuesdays through Sundays) and weekend lunch. Eventually, it will launch weekend brunch and possibly weekday lunch. A 16-seat patio is also planned. Tacqueria del Barrio will not take reservations opening weekend but will in the future.
Taqueria del Barrio, 821 Upshur St. NW; taqueriadelbarrio.com