Oyamel alum Christian Irabien Gamboa wants to give D.C. diners a super authentic taste of what it’s actually like to dine in his native Mexico via Amparo, the new restaurant he’s working to unveil in Mount Pleasant by November.
Amparo (3110 Mount Pleasant Street NW) will focus on the coastal regions of Mexico, packing lots of seafood and produce into the menu. The key theme throughout the subterranean space is “small”: there will be just 35 seats, one bar lined with mezcals, and a modestly sized open kitchen. Signage will also be inconspicuous, so “if you blink you miss it” (a common trait of hidden hangover-inducing gems sprinkled across Mexico, he notes).
“You come downstairs and don’t really know what you’re getting into,” he says.
Menu items are still in the works, but his recent pop-up at District Space in Brookland included fare like hand-made noodles with wild mushrooms and corn truffle.
“We are steering away from the ‘taco’ situation — we will be more modernized,” he says.
Some classics will join the party, however. Tortillas will be a part of the equation, and he promises he won’t “deny the world” of al pastor, either.
While it’s his first solo project, he’s got some serious Mexican street cred under his belt. He was raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, and in 2015 he helped opened a large and stylish Mexican restaurant in Oakland called Calavera. That West Coast experience, he says, opened his eyes to the world of flavorful possibilities using the right produce.
He wants to stray from American or “low-quality versions of recreations of Mexican product,” he says.
And if he can’t score Mexican crops like corn, for instance, he’ll go local; instead of Oaxacan cheese, he’d settle for a close sister: Armenian string cheese.
As for the design of the space, formerly a pupusa joint, he wants to replicate some of the modern-yet-casual eateries he’s stumbled upon in Mexico City. There’s room for a retractable roof in the backyard, where he envisions a sun-drenched seating area accented by lots of concrete and plants. To weave cultures, the playlist will include American punk rock and hip hop sung in Spanish by Mexican bands — a hit with the investors he pitched to last year. He’s planning on launching a Kickstarter campaign closer to opening.
Gamboa got into the restaurant business over a decade ago, ditching his business admin job at the International Monetary Fund to go to culinary school. He started out at Hook in Georgetown and at José Andrés’ Oyamel, he graduated from the ceviche bar line in 2010 all the way up to sous chef.
The beverage program will be heavy on sustainable mezcals, and he plans to work with small family co-ops who are “helping not hurting the agave movement,” he says. Other liquids that’ll flow in from the country include natural wines from Valle de Guadalupe, a budding vino region in Baja, as well as spring waters and lemongrass for teas.
And D.C.’s first Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, a Barack Obama favorite that’s about two months away from opening upstairs, will likely collaborate with Amparo on flavors that integrate tequila and avocado.
“There isn’t an elevated Mexican taqueria in the neighborhood,” he says, adding that while Taqueria Habanero is “100 percent legit,” he’s shooting for more upscale.
Dinner service will likely be followed by lunch and a lively brunch service — typically an hours-long affair in Mexico — with lots of churros and coffee passed around, he says.