With the retirement of high-end Mexican grill Del Campo, it’s time to say hola to the lucha libre of Mexican food: Taco Bamba (777 I (EYE) Street NW). The first D.C. outpost of the NoVa group of taquerias run by Chef Victor Albisu opened in April after providing lunchtime service to the Chinatown workforce crowd for several months. The pop-up became so popular that Albisu expanded and now serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails.
“The response to Taco Bamba’s lunch-only run in Chinatown was better than I had ever expected,” Albisu said.
It’s no wonder. Walk into Taco Bamba and it’s full-on sensory overload -- every chair is a front-row seat to the Mexican meal craziness. The soundtrack might put you in a headlock before you even find your seat, with loud, rocking tunes from AC/DC, Soundgarden and Aerosmith. But get past that, and you’ll see it fits in with the aesthetic.
While some recent taquerias in the city are dedicated to straightforward authenticity, Albisu takes another route. Sure, he has a rather extensive menu of traditional tacos ($3.50): carne asada, chicken tinga, barbacoa, lengua and al pastor all make appearances, as well as a vegetarian option (calabazas meaning brown-butter roasted squash). But the real draw is Albisu’s assertive set of “Tacos Nuestros” ($4.50), that are just as colorful as a wrestling mask, and a whole lot more fun.
“We like to form the Nuestros Tacos menu to the neighborhood we are opening in,” said Chef Albisu. “It adds individual personality to each shop. We view every new Taco Bamba as an opportunity to get creative."
The most popular taco, Albisu notes, is the eponymous Taco Bamba, with skirt steak, chorizo, cotija cheese, chicharron and guac (and you don’t have to pay extra for it).
Albisu really shines when it comes to his pop-culture-reference taco offerings. In what amounts to a noble burger-taco mashup, the Royale with Cheese combines ground burger meat, onions, Chihuahua cheese, lettuce and tomato, along with “pickle” de gallo, Bamba’s very own Thousand Island dressing, all neatly wrapped into a flour tortilla -- it's definitely not a taco you’ll find in abuela’s kitchen!
Yes, we know that the French version of a Big Mac is actually a “Royale Cheese” but fans of Pulp Fiction, and of his, won’t care.
Other standouts on this funky menu include the Boricua, with pork pernil and plantain crema, and the Arabe, with grilled chicken, ancho mayo, cucumber pico, spicy yogurt and mint. Another pop culture nod is the Sid Vicious: crispy fried cod, malt vinegar salsa macha and tartar sauce. Named for the Sex Pistols frontman, and with Brit-pub ingredients, it’s certainly at home here.
To go with your offbeat tacos are other cheeky offerings, like the guac made from grilled avocados that lend earthiness and smokiness, elote slathered in mayo and cotija cheese, and the Dark Night nachos with shrimp, crab, calamari, chilis and avocado, doused in squid-ink black sauce.
Though Taco Bamba has several VA locations, the D.C. spot gave Albisu the opportunity to play even more. In Chinatown, there was a much larger opportunity to push the bar program and have an expansive cocktail menu.
Albisu gave beverage director Amin Seddiq a long leash to create drinks as colorful, distinctive and spicy as the tacos. Beyond the necessary marg on draft, he makes a margarita spiked with mezcal, a margarita that sports wood fire-roasted pineapple in a glass with a sal de gusano rim (yes, that’s worm salt), and a rotating margarita with seasonal ingredients sourced from the Penn Quarter farmers market. Other boozy options to toss back include a daiquiri made with Oaxacan rum and a michelada (beer + tomato juice) spiced up with grilled tomatoes and chilis.
The design firm Swatchroom put together the bold aesthetic, using raw materials (plywood, corrugated metal), music-inspired artwork and an exuberant made-in-DC mural over the bar depicting a hand grasping a taco, with a D.C. flag tattoo on its wrist.
Our final take? Come for the tacos, stay for the party and grab an extra napkin!