After a two-year hiatus, chef and restaurateur Victor Albisu will bring his wildly popular tacos with offbeat toppings back to D.C. proper.
Situated at the shiny new City Ridge complex (3900 Wisconsin Avenue NW), Taco Bamba’s 3,100-square-foot freestanding location with a big patio will be the homegrown taqueria’s largest yet. The flashy redevelopment of Fannie Mae’s former headquarters will also welcome Tatte Bakery & Cafe and King Street Oyster Bar this fall.
“The space has a really unique quality to it,” says Albisu, of the modern, concrete building with a 20-foot glass wall. “We’re really excited to be back in the city. The City Ridge area is going to be a real game changer for D.C.”
Taco Bamba’s previous D.C. presence in Penn Quarter officially ended in fall 2020, along with the closure of his fancy Mexican flagship Poca Madre next door, as Albisu shifted attention to surrounding states. Following recent openings in Rockville and Arlington, Taco Bamba will land in Landmark, Va. and Gaithersburg, Md. this spring, as well as Herndon, Va. this summer.
Bamba’s pop culture-referencing tacos with irreverent, cheffed-up touches and portable capabilities have proven to be pretty pandemic-proof. The local chain makes unexpected tortilla toppers like ramen noodles and chicken nuggets work, along with a steady stream of margaritas, sangrias, palomas, and beers served in loud and lively settings.
To help steer its fast expansion, Albisu got two big chefs with fine-dining backgrounds like himself to try Taco Bamba T-Shirts on for size. Le Diplomate alum Harper McClure, most recently executive chef of Mintwood Place, is starting off as chef and general manager in Vienna, and top Pittsburgh chef Justin Severino will tap into his culinary and construction background as director of restaurant development.
Severino is behind Pittsburgh’s charcuterie standard bearer Salty Pork Bits and award-winning Spanish restaurant Morcilla, both of which he designed and built himself.
“I joke Taco Bamba is my 13-step process of breaking my addiction to fine dining,” says Severino. “The way menus happen here is pretty awesome. Everyone has input.”
Severino, a longtime friend of Albisu’s, will officially relocate to the area this summer. In the mean time, he’s here three days a week and says he’s developing a new fixation for Bamba’s breakfast tacos.
The brand that debuted in a Falls Church strip mall back in 2013 now employs more than 150 across six locations in Northern Virginia and Rockville, Maryland.
A lineup of “nuestros tacos” at every Bamba location packs in references to individual neighborhoods and its nostalgic surroundings. In Landmark, a meatball torta will harken back to the Starvin’ Marvin’s sub Albisu fondly remembers while working at his mother’s nearby Latin market. A Korean-leaning “Porque Pop” also pays homage to the Alexandria neighborhood near Annandale.
“We don’t rubber stamp and scale the same menu everywhere we go,” says Albisu. “People always joke you should write a book about all the tacos you never do because we [come up with] so many.”
Albisu says “nothing’s off the table” when it comes to bringing an upscale restaurant back to the area, but going all in on Bamba feels like the right move right now.
“Fine-dining is what I’ve always done and loved,” says Albisu. “There’s a different level of enjoyment and satisfaction [with fast-casual], when you get to show off your creativity to the masses and see thousands of tacos fly out the door.”
Some of Bamba’s senior chefs and managers formerly worked at his meat-driven showpiece Del Campo and polished Poca Madre replacement, as well as Kinship and Passion Food Hospitality.
“We’re attracting more and more chefs that want to do it a little differently while still contributing creatively and getting their hands dirty,” says Albisu. “It’s becoming my life’s work and becoming such an important collective of people.”