On Taco Bamba's busiest days, the line can snake out the front door and wind all the way to Plaza Latina Market, located several doors down in this small Falls Church strip center. You could call the line a "family connection": The taqueria, after all, is owned by chef Victor Albisu, and the market is owned by his mother, Rosa Susinski.
Quaint as the line might be, it represents something else to Albisu: the unmistakable popularity of Taco Bamba and the need to expand the brand.
"It just got to the point where we've outgrown this space," says Albisu during a phone interview. "It's at capacity pretty much all the time, and we need some room to breathe."
So expand he will. Next year, Albisu will add two more outlets of Taco Bamba. The first one, located at 6691-A Backlick Road in Springfield, will debut early in 2016, while the second, located at 180 Maple Ave. W in Vienna, will open in the summer. Both will occupy 2,000-square-foot spaces, enough for 50 seats, far more than the handful of counter stools now available at the current spot.
The new locations will have more than space, too: they'll have booze. Albisu is still searching for someone, perhaps a consultant, to create bar programs for both spots. Think margaritas (perhaps on tap), micheladas, palomas, Mexican beers.
"The drink programs are going to be pretty focused," Albisu says. "It's going to be stuff that goes with tacos, for the most part. In Vienna, we'll have probably a bit more of a broader bar, where you can sit down and have a few different styles of cocktails. But I'm not envisioning a 50-item, mixology-driven, craft-cocktail menu at any of these locations. It's still a food-first business."
The chef may expand the menu beyond the tacos, tortas, tamales, sopes and flautas found at the original location — but not by much. Albisu imagines adding a line of Mexican street-food quesadillas and perhaps larger plates such as spicy shrimp, carne asada or even a roast chicken, but only if "the area demands it and wants it."
"We're not going to stray too far from the original formula," he adds.
That original formula also includes this intangible quality called vibe. Albisu likes the way the Falls Church neighborhood has embraced Taco Bamba since it debuted in 2013. During lunch, diners often congregate around the taqueria as the music blasts. They'll suffer long lines just for a chance to bite into Albisu's al pastor taco or his Black Pearl fish taco. When the wait drags too long, staff may pass out guacamole and chips for people to share.
Some customers have even devised their own DIY solutions to Taco Bamba's seating shortage: They bring their own folding tables. They have, in short, have made the restaurant their own. "It's really kind of humbling," Albisu says.
These moments touch Albisu enough that he wants to remain loyal to chain-heavy suburban neighborhoods, where chef-driven restaurants rarely put down roots.
"We really don't need to be on the corner of Main and Main, as a lot of brokers like to say," says Albisu. "We hope to be in locations that people can feel as though they've found a gem or a hidden treasure."
Fair enough, we won't look for a Taco Bamba in the District anytime soon. But what about a fresh tortilla station? Will we see those in Springfield or Vienna?
"Originally, we just never had the space for it. But now I feel like we kind of design our food and our flavors to our [pre-packaged] tortillas," the chef says. "Everyone seems to really like them, the way we do them on the plancha . . .I think we're going to stay the course."
Besides, Albisu adds, "Just to handle the amount of business that we're doing at Taco Bamba, we would have to rent a separate location just to do tortillas."