This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. on Sept. 26.
What, you might ask, is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef of Peruvian and Cuban heritage doing running a Mexican taco stand in the far corner of an out-of-view shopping mall just off Route 7 in Falls Church?
It might help to know that he is a native of Northern Virginia and his mother owns the Latina Plaza market just a few doors away in the Idylwood Shopping Center, but the answer doesn’t really matter. What matters is the result, for chef Victor Albisu’s Taco Bamba is a welcome addition to the local food scene, which has suffered from a lack of good, inexpensive Mexican fare.
Taco Bamba is not really a restaurant. It is a 12-stool, mostly take-out, mostly taco stand that serves — despite his training and roots — Albisu’s take on Mexican street food. The menu is posted on the wall and orders are taken at the counter in the rear. Then you collect your meal at the other end, where hopefully there’s a stool to perch on while you watch as your tacos are assembled. (Chef Albisu also owns Del Campo, an upscale South American restaurant in Washington.)
Mexican food aficionados may quibble about whether these are “authentic” tacos. The corn tortillas are not freshly handmade and the fillings are wrapped in two-ply tortillas (it helps both to keep them warm and from falling apart), the salsas may be a bit mild for some tastes, and the grilled guacamole is different. None of that seems to deter the hungry patrons who, guided by signs and word-of-mouth, have discovered this out-of-the-way taco stand.
There are other items on the menu. Breakfast is served all day, and the breakfast menu includes enchiladas, huevos rancheros and a filling dish of chilaquiles — a good way to start the day.
But the real lures are the tacos, and there are at least 16 choices. If you go for the “traditionales,” you will find the expected carne asado (grilled beef), barbacoa (shredded beef) and carnitas (shredded pork confit), along with seared beef, Mexican sausage, spiced pork and stewed chicken. You’ll also find the less-familiar beef tongue and “Tripa,” crackly pieces of beef small intestine, and the popular “Al Pastor,” a mix of pork and pineapple.
The meats are well seasoned, but if you want an added kick, try one of the three salsas (in small containers at the end of the counter where you pick up your food). These are all relatively mild, as salsas go, but sample your taco before adding salsa. You may decide it doesn’t need anything else.
That is particularly true of the “Tacos Nuestros,” those that showcase Albrisu’s take on tacos. The “Taco Bamba,” for instance, is a deftly seasoned, well-balanced blend of skirt steak, chorizo, grilled guacamole and chicharonnes. Adding salsa actually detracts from the flavor combination. The same is true of the vegetarian “Spicy Shroom,” a mix of portobello, chipotle, grilled corn, cotija cheese and pepitas, and of “El Beso,” an addictive mix of crispy pork and beef tongue, charred scallions with house-made chili aioli (and that should be bottled and sold to go).
Albisu has other offerings: “Bamba Ball,” with an ancho and tomato braised meatball, grilled guacamole and Cotija; the “Black Pearl,” with fried tilapia, spicy coleslaw and black aioli; a crispy sweetbread mix; and the appropriately named “El Gringo,” a flour tortilla filled with ground beef, bacon, American cheese and lettuce mixed with ranch dressing.
A few “Not Tacos” are on the menu, among them a double hamburger with poblanos, pepper jack cheese and avocado; tamales that are heavy on cornmeal and light on filling; and a much-too-buttery (or maybe it is from the mayo) corn on the cob slathered with mayo, chili and cheese.
For dessert, your choice is easy: a portion of rice pudding with streaks of dulce de leche, which elevate this version far above the ordinary. Beverages include Mexican Coca Cola and grapefruit soda, but if you want beer with your tacos, go a few doors down to mom’s Plaza Latina market, also handy if the taco stand happens to run out of ingredients.
The original version of this story contained an inaccurate web address.