The tacos are coming... eventually


Veggie and pork tacos at Tacos Impala. (Matthew J. Taylor for The Washington Post)

Outdoor tacos on U Street

The biggest buzz came around El Rey, a proposed "seasonal neighborhood taco stand with outdoor seating" for 150, according to a liquor license application posted on the gates of an empty lot next to Dodge City and the Velvet Lounge.

The mysterious al fresco taqueria is actually the latest project from Eric and Ian Hilton, who own a slew of U Street nightspots; Dickson Wine is a few doors down, American Ice Company is a block away, and the duo is behind the Brixton, a planned English pub that's being built on the corner of 9th and U streets.

"We're trying to do a Mexican beer garden with tacos," says Ian Hilton. "We've got a lot of great ideas, but it's so early."

What is for sure is that there won't be an indoor component to El Rey. If all goes to plan, customers will pick up their tacos and beers, then eat them under the stars. (The application includes a request for a "Live entertainment, dancing [and a] DJ," though it's hard to see how that will work outdoors when the owners are asking for permission to stay open until 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.)

The placard says that the owners have a liquor license hearing on Aug. 5, raising the possibility of a mid-August opening, but Hilton says flatly that "It's not going to happen. Trying to cash in on the end of the summer and then going dark" is not on the cards. "We don't want to start and stop. We want to nail it."

To that end, Hilton says, look for a March 2012 opening.

Meanwhile on 11th Street

In Columbia Heights, Jackie Greenbaum’s still unnamed neighborhood Mexican restaurant finally received its liquor license after a four-month wait. With that hurdle out of the way, Greenbaum is getting ready to start putting the pieces together. In the short-term, that means finalizing the contractor bids and deciding exactly what shape the menu and bar lists will take. Greenbaum expects that construction will be underway within a few weeks, and she hopes the space will be ready for its first customers in late August or early September.

One thing the restaurateur wants to make clear: This isn’t a taqueria. Though the bar-food-heavy menu will feature a half-dozen tacos, Greenbaum envisions the space more as a “a Mexican diner, sort of an old-school neighborhood cantina.” That means in addition to the six tacos, she’s looking at serving chicken and pork rinds, sopas, chile rellenos, Sonoran hot dogs and a selection of tortas and cemitas.

On the liquid side of the spectrum, Greenbaum says she isn’t planning an endless tequila list or frequently changing craft cocktails. “The standards should be raised for everyone at this point,” she says, “and just because you are in a little Mexican hole in the wall doesn’t mean you can’t get a great margarita.” In fact, Greenbaum hopes to have a $5 margarita made with fresh squeezed lime juice and quality spirits on the menu at all times. She also hopes to help people indulge in a guilty pleasure by offering a selection of frozen margaritas.

With about 40 seats on the first floor, another 40 on the roof and about six outdoor tables, this isn’t going to be a massive neighborhood anchor, but that’s hardly what the Jackie’s owner is aiming for. “I want it to be something really affordable for the Columbia Heights neighborhood,” she explains: “a super accessible, low-profile neighborhood spot that serves surprisingly good food.”


Tacos Impala was a pop-up restaurant founded by Erik Yang and Troy Hickman on H Street NE. (Matthew J. Taylor for The Washington Post)

Rumors have been swirling for months that H Street NE's way too short-lived pop-up taco window Tacos Impala would re-emerge as a full-fledged restaurant.

According to Tacos Impala's co-founder Troy Hickman, the rumors are true.  But you'll have to wait until next year to sink your teeth into one of those massive tacos again. Hickman --  who's a partner in Jimmy Valentine's Lonely Hearts Club and Toki Underground and has helped build many of H Street's bars and restaurants, including Queen Vic -- confirms that he'll be opening a sit-down restaurant called Impala on H Street NE by next spring. How sure is he?  In a few days, Hickman will be on his way to Mexico to research the food and to scout for all the glassware, plates and furniture for the restaurant.

Impala, Hickman says, will serve rustic "ranchero food" from Northern Mexico and will have a wide selection of tequilas.  But the emphasis will remain on a small menu of uber-authentic food; the chef, in fact, is training with Hickman's mother, who is Mexican.   

Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
Lavanya Ramanathan is a features reporter for Style.

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