Catering to the masses with her long-running food truck, DC Empanadas, has undoubtedly tried Anna Bran Leis’ patience over the years.
But bringing Taqueria del Barrio into being has tested her like nothing before.
“It was definitely not what I expected,” the first-time restaurateur said of the sit-down establishment she’s working to open before the end of March.
Bran Leis said the plans for the self-styled taqueria began taking shape about a year ago. Physical reconstruction of the former Domku space (821 Upshur Street NW) has stretched out over the past four months (she was originally told the build out would take six weeks). When the doors do finally open to the general public, Bran Leis is excited about welcoming guests to a 92-seat home-away-from-home with a bar featuring room for 17 patrons. She anticipates adding 16 more seats once the weather warms up and an exterior patio comes into play.
Capturing the right tone for the place required collaboration. Bran Leis hired architect Sucha Khamsuwan from Studio Ideya to help transform the interior into a slice of life from below the border. “I wanted it to feel like you were outside in a courtyard in Mexico,” she said. The brick walls and flooring are original, whereas she lobbied for the Mexican tiles used to decorate the bar. “That reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen,” she said of the ornately decorated squares that will forever conjure the materfamilias she lost last year.
Artist Matthew McMillan was entrusted with reproducing images from her childhood memories. The resulting artwork splashed across one wall was inspired by the loteria icons she stared at so intently while playing Bingo-like games back in her native Guatemala. “There’s lots of things that remind me of Latin America, of being home,” Bran Leis said of the striking decor.
The most integral piece, though, has to be a standalone image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Bran Leis confessed to loving the patron saint of Mexico — which is why the iconic lady received a place of honor.
“He did an amazing job with her,” she said of McMillan’s faithful depiction.
Bran Leis can’t wait to add other visual elements to the naked real estate remaining in the restaurant. “I going to see what he [McMillan] can come up with for the other side,” she said.
Bran Leis’ put just as much of herself into the food. The opening menu includes: Mexican street corn with chile-lime aioli ($3.99); queso fundido forged from Mexican cheeses, beer, garlic and spices ($8.99; $10.99 with chorizo); tacos ($3) with an over a dozen fillings, including lengua, carnitas, beer-battered shrimp, grilled cactus, and rajas; and a trio of tortas.
The drinks list is composed of standards ($11 for everything from margaritas to Cuba libre), signature cocktails (featuring nearly a dozen rum-, tequila- or pisco-fueled beverages), wine (Including a brut champagne by the glass) and just under a dozen beers (four on draft).
She mapped out plans to launch with dinner service, then introduce lunch on weekends, followed by brunch. And she’s definitely looking to provide for the after-work crowd to worship. “We’re definitely going to have happy hour,” Bran Leis said, citing $5 margaritas, mezcal punch, and some sort of bubbly as regular features.
“There’ll always be a glass of Champagne on special at happy hour,” the sparkling wine aficionado pledged.