Words by Kaylee Dugan, Photos by Nicholas Karlin
From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, Del Campo transforms into a very different place. Prog rock blasts through the speakers, Margaritas clutter the table tops and a line starts to form out the door. The Taco Bamba lunch counter is open for business. Often heralded as the best tacos in the DMV, the District has been begging for Victor Albisu to open one of his taqueria’s in the city proper since the first one debuted in Falls Church. After opening more in Vienna and Springfield, he’s finally taking us seriously.
Albisu is using the new lunch counter as his testing ground, a way of figuring out what flavors D.C. diners want before diving in and building a full fledged location. While all of his taqueria’s have menu items in common, including the classics like carnitas and in house specialties like El Gringo, Albisu and his team are nothing if not creative. Each spot has a different series of “Tacos Neustros”, which is where the menu really shines. These tacos are full of unusual flavors and inspirations, but more often that not, those are the ones you find yourself craving the next day. All of Taco Bamba’s offerings are good, but if you’re going to make the trek out to one of his Virginia locations or stand in line at Del Campo, you might as well get weird.
And if I was standing in that line today, there are two tacos I’d order without hesitation. The T’N’T is a meaty concoction featuring crispy beef tongue, tripa, grilled scallions and a drizzle of chili aioli. The soft corn tortillas and the crunchy tongue are a match made in heaven, and the dash of heat from the aioli solidifies its status in my heart. This is the kind of taco that calls for a bucket of your favorite lite beer (I’ll take a Miller High Life) and something sporty on the TV. It walks the line between simple and decadent and it does too well.
The Drunken Master, on the other hand, is a taco that commands your attention. It features a base of miso-agave rice with succulent kung pao shrimp, shishitos and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts, but it’s the inclusion of chile de arbol that really gets your attention. This taco packs some serious creeping heat, the kind that tricks you into eating more and more. You’re definitely going to need something to cool down afterwards, but you wont regret a thing. Not with that kind of flavor.
Booze wouldn’t be my first choice for washing away the spice (in fact, we learned it makes everything hurt more during our Hot Sauce Taste Test), but the Taco Bamba counter does have a small and solid cocktail menu. If you’re a real jerk (like me!) go for the Smoked Meze Al Negroni, which comes on a wooden board and requires some assembly. All of your friends will want to Instagram it. Looking for something lighter? The Some Pulp is a play on a Paloma, combining tequila and grapefruit juice with vanilla and lime, for a drink that goes down incredibly easy. This is something we could drink anytime of day.
If you’re looking for a break from tacos (blasphemous) Albisu also has your back there. The counter has tons of non taco items like elote, chicharrones and rice and beans. The Crispy Crab and Tinga tostadas are nice if you’re looking for a non-taco option, but if you’re eating here, you should be getting tacos. No exceptions.