Tom Sietsema: At Mockingbird Hill and Taco Bamba, big flavors come in small packages

August 7, 2013

Some of the local food scene’s big names are thinking small by offering singular themes on their menus. One arrival combines sherry and ham; another celebrates tacos. Both attractions are linked by their owners’ focused ambition.

Sherry is enough of an unknown commodity in this country that Derek Brown, co-owner of a trim new bar specializing in the wine made primarily from the palomino grape, hosts weekly classes at Mockingbird Hill to introduce it to the curious, some of whom tell him their only exposure to the drink had been from Wikipedia. The major lessons Brown likes to impart in the Tuesday night tutorials are that sherry is from Spain; “it’s the greatest food wine in the world”; and “more pirates than grandmothers” drank true sherry.

Opening an ode to the wine is “definitely risky,” says Brown, who runs the Shaw addition with his wife, former Tabard Inn bar maven Chantal Tseng. “But I’m not interested in doing things I’m lukewarm about.” Further buoyed by what the cocktail movement is doing for their cause — you can hardly pivot on a bar stool without spotting a sherry-laced drink these days — husband and wife have put sherry on a pedestal by stocking 60-plus kinds. They embrace the light, straw-colored fino; the crisp, sea-breezy manzanilla; the nuttier, amber-hued amontillado; the dark and fragrant oloroso; and many styles more.

Brown tends to pour fino amontillado, rich but not overly sweet, as a starter sherry for novices. Flights of sherries ($12 to $28 for a trio of tastes) are my preferred way to compare, say, how location influences the shade and the flavor of the end drink.

Ham gets equal billing at the bar (and a class of its own on Wednesday nights), pork being a traditional nibble with sherry. Sí, there’s serrano from Spain. But the sampler plate is all-American, composed of Virginia-made, hickory-scented Surryano; Red Apron’s lomo, cured in Spanish paprika and sherry; lush prosciutto from Iowa; and jerky-like cured duck from Cured DC, a crimson nod to those who don’t eat pork. Other welcome companions to the sips include silvery anchovies and crushed tomato on toasted bread, creamy potato salad with smoked trout and sparkling orange roe, and tender baby octopus with chorizo and juicy bits of orange. Snacks of olives, almonds and unpleasantly crunchy lupini beans round out the savories.

The menu is purposefully brief. “My specialty is drinking,” Brown says. But more than that, the small plates at Mockingbird Hill are meant to take the edge off the sherry and, as is the practice in Spain, serve as a segue to dinner elsewhere. Twenty bucks here can buy you not just a glass of sherry and a munch but also a detour to Madrid, where the owners first fell for the custom.

Brown’s idea to roll out Mockingbird Hill, whose name comes from lyrics in the Clash song “Spanish Bombs,” sprang from a desire to create something the city lacked. Last this fan checked, Washington still stocks only one ham-and-sherry source with a punk rock aesthetic — and it’s a high bar.

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If you think all guacamole tastes alike, you haven’t dipped a tortilla chip in the lush green mash at the long-awaited Taco Bamba in Falls Church. Making the snack fresh daily helps, says owner Victor Albisu, but grilling the avocado is what gives his guacamole an edge over much of the competition.

The tactic shouldn’t come as a surprise from the chef, who has made a name for himself and his youthful South American restaurant Del Campo downtown, where practically everything on his menu comes with a whisper, sometimes a shout, of smoke. So fascinated is he by the flavor, Albisu jokes that whenever he eats outside his own dining rooms, he takes a bite of food and thinks, “This isn’t done.”

Announced more than a year ago, Taco Bamba took seemingly forever to open and finally launched in June; to sustain the interest of chowhounds, Albisu previewed his menu at pop-ups in Washington. Tucked away in the Idylwood Shopping Center off Route 7, the self-service Mexican pit stop sits just yards away from Plaza Latina Market, owned by the chef’s mother. That’s where the chorizo is made for the taco joint and where Albisu knows he can retrieve dried chilies if he runs short in his 12-seater.

Chili-red chalkboard menus announce the eats, which revolve around classic and contemporary tacos, sopas and “Not Tacos,” the last a list that includes a swell pork tamale. Grilled beef tacos are the bestsellers, and they’re tasty, but even better are the fillings made from lamb shank (from the pedigreed Border Springs Farm in Virginia) and beef intestines, which are first braised, then fried to an audible crunch. The cooks behind the exposed grill sprinkle red onion and cilantro over the hot tripe before handing over the taco, creating an alluring perfume. Beer-battered tilapia and fresh slaw — a combo billed as Black Pearl and zipped up with squid ink mayonnaise — play hot and cool in every bite.

Chorizo, alas, was dry when I sampled the crumbled sausage.

Some of the best bites are vegetarian. The Spicy Shroom taco bursts with chopped, chipotle-ignited portobellos, the meatiest of mushrooms, upgraded with a hit of lemon, garlic and cilantro. And if you don’t round out your meal with corn on the cob, slathered with mayonnaise and a dusting of cotija cheese after it leaves the grill (love the char), you’re missing out on one of the world’s best street foods. “I like to cook for vegetarians,” says Albisu, whose father is a vegan and whose menu is expected to get even greener down the road.

The majority of the tacos involve two-ply corn tortillas; most customers are there for carryout, says the chef, and a double wrap is the best way to keep the packets warm until they’re eaten.

Made in-house, the condiments address all preferences. Salsas include a fresh tomatillo-avocado, a potent chili de arbol and a flavor pump made only in small batches and stowed behind the counter: Ask for the habanero sauce at your tongue’s peril.

The lines snaking out of the tidy storefront at prime time are testament to both its big flavors and its limited seating. Show up early if you hope to snare a stool at the ledge hugging the gray-blue cement block walls, proof that the place was designed as a tip of the sombrero to Latin markets.

I’m the kind of customer who would rather order another taco than buy something sweet, although I suspend that practice when it comes to the rice pudding at Taco Bamba. Calling to me from the bottom of the cup of cool comfort is a rich vein of dulce de leche that is quickly mined.

Liquid refreshment runs from Mexican Coke and grapefruit soda in a cooler to floral hibiscus punch dispensed near the cash register. For something stronger, Albisu, ever the son and the salesman, points toward his neighbor and says, “Get your beer at Plaza Latina.”

★★

(Good)
Mockingbird Hill

1843 Seventh St. NW. 202-316-9396. drinkmore
sherry.com.

OPEN:5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

PRICES: Small plates $4 to $11.

SOUND CHECK:72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

★★

(Good)
Taco Bamba

2190 Pimmit Dr., Falls Church. 703-639-0505. tacobamba
restaurant.com.

OPEN: 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.

PRICES: Tacos and “Not Tacos” $3 to $10.

SOUND CHECK: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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