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Nestled in the armpit of an aging L-shaped strip mall off Route 7 in Falls Church, next to a karate studio and a rug shop, sits carryout taqueria Taco Bamba. From the entrance to the Idylwood Shopping Center parking lot, it takes a minute to spot the taco shop’s name, displayed under a faded American Logo Corporation sign.
Inside the gray concrete block walls, sweat collects along Victor Albisu’s cheekbones as he stands at the edge of the kitchen counter in his white chef’s coat and jeans, calling out orders from yellow tickets. A team of cooks heats up corn tortillas and grills bits of beef and pork for the lunch crowd. “195. Barbacoa, chorizo, tinga,” shouts Albisu, 38, in his fluent Spanish. “One nine five. Uno nueve cinco.” A line stretches nearly out the door. More yellow tickets pile up.
“Uno nueve nueve!” Tripe tacos. “This is my favorite taco. Intestine. It’s delicious,” Albisu says.
Calling out taco orders in a takeout joint is not exactly where you’d expect to find a guy who’s cooked for the president and first lady and worked at high-end French and American restaurants like BLT Steak, Marcel’s, and L’Arpège in Paris. So what exactly is a half-Peruvian, half-Cuban chef with a fine-dining pedigree doing slinging Mexican food in a suburban strip mall?
It’s counterintuitive, at the very least. Albisu opened his first restaurant, Del Campo—an upscale South American grill with a prime location in Chinatown—only two months before the debut of Taco Bamba. Never mind that it’s a daunting task to open two restaurants at virtually the same time; Del Campo is Albisu’s dream restaurant. He’s been planning for it nearly his entire life.
And as one of the most talked-about new D.C. restaurant openings of the spring, Del Campo has gotten far more ink than Taco Bamba, with his PR team and the media playing up how personal the cooking is for Albisu. The grilled cuisine downtown? That’s the food he learned to appreciate from his Cuban grandfather, who was a baker. And that’s the food he learned to cook from the Argentine and Uruguayan butchers who worked in his mother’s market growing up.
But Taco Bamba is personal in another, less obvious way. While Del Campo is all about Albisu’s Latin American heritage and upbringing, Taco Bamba is a nod to his restaurant family. “I love tacos, and if anybody came up through D.C. kitchens in the last 10 years like I did, you’ll have eaten a lot of tacos, because a lot of our cooks have been Latin American or Mexican,” Albisu says. “Tacos and pupusas have been a mainstay in my diet.”
Of course, Taco Bamba is no average taqueria. Sure, you’ll find the traditional chorizo, al pastor, and lengua (tongue) tacos ($3 each or three for $8) scrawled on the red chalkboard menu. But then there are some offerings that give away Albisu’s fine-dining finesse. Among the more refined tacos in the rotation ($3-9 each): duck confit with crispy skin, peppers, and chipotle crema; bone marrow, burnt onion chipotle, and chicken skin chicharrón; and masa-crusted foie gras with squash salsa, pickled palmitos, and white mole. Albisu offered a sneak peek at a pop-up at Black Jack on 14th Street NW last fall, but the offerings at Taco Bamba are far more substantial than the dainty mini-tacos he prepared then.
Meanwhile, that seemingly random strip mall location at 2190 Pimmit Drive isn’t so random. Taco Bamba is located only a couple doors down from Plaza Latina, a market and butcher shop owned by Albisu’s Peruvian mother, Rosa Susinski—who employed the Argentines and Uruguayans who helped inspire the grilled meats at Del Campo. (The Falls Church taqueria is also not far from Albisu’s northern Virginia home, which is in the same cul de sac as his mother’s place.) Although she’s not directly involved in the taqueria’s operations, she will keep an eye on it when Albisu’s not around. He’ll still spend the lion’s share of his time in the kitchen at Del Campo but plans to check in on Taco Bamba at least a few times a week, mostly in the mornings. The taqueria is open from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Susinski was also the one who helped Albisu secure the space after the dollar store that used to be there closed down. “I said, ‘You know, I’d like to put something in there.’ And I talked to Vic and he was in transition in that moment,” Susinski says of the time after her son left his position as executive chef of BLT Steak in March 2012. “And he said, ‘Mom, let’s put a taqueria in there. Taco Bamba.’ I said, ‘OK’… He really came up with that.”
Swap tacos for Cuban sandwiches, and the setup resembles an evolved version of Victor’s Deli, the sandwich counter that Albisu ran out of his mom’s butcher shop (then located in Alexandria) when he was 12 years old. “Victor was making sandwiches for all the people who worked in the car dealers. They came and sat down and waited for Victor to make their sandwiches, can you believe that?” Susinski says. “He made ham and Swiss cheeses and put lettuce and whatever. You know what—he had it in his soul. At the age of 12, he was making fried chicken at home.”
Susinski recalls when Albisu, a major in international relations and politics at George Mason University, told her he wanted to go to culinary school in Paris. “I go, ‘No, I don’t want that,’” she says. “My mother said, ‘No, no, he’s got to be a diplomat.’ But he wanted to go, and he loved it, and this is what he wanted to do.”
Today, Susinski couldn’t be happier, or more proud, to have Albisu selling his food beside her again. When I arrived at the restaurant a day after its June 17 opening, I caught her snapping photos of her son and the long lunch hour line like a proud parent capturing memories before prom night. Taco Bamba was packed; I had to circle the parking lot twice before I found a spot.
Del Campo, located in one of the busiest neighborhoods in the District, has gradually built up its crowd. But Taco Bamba, tucked away in a suburban street you can’t easily get to by Metro, was immediately slammed when it opened. Albisu says so far, he’s been getting a few hundred people each day.
Maybe it’s that the neighborhood is underserved for lunch or that everyone just loves tacos, but there is another appeal and charm to having the taco shop there. The strip mall locale lends the taqueria a certain street cred that it might not have in a shiny office building in downtown D.C. People tend to fetishize hole-in-the wall taquerias, in part because they’re holes in the wall. After all, two of the Washington region’s highest rated taquerias on Yelp are R&R Taqueria, located in an Elkridge, Md., gas station, and the no-frills Tacos El Chilango food truck, which parks on a hill just off Route 50 in Rosslyn with little foot traffic. There’s something about off-the-beaten-track destinations that diners associate with authenticity.
And although foie gras will eventually make an appearance, Albisu wants Taco Bamba to feel like the real deal. He wants it to be about the tacos. There’s no swanky roof deck or margaritas on tap or any of the other signifiers of the hip-Mex craze that has invaded the D.C. area over the past two years. In fact, there aren’t even real tables at Taco Bamba, only a few stools and a wooden ledge. “To elevate this anymore than it is would be doing it a disservice,” Albisu says. “To me, this is how you eat tacos.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery