“We’ve All Been Through It This Year”

Survival stories and silver linings from one of the restaurant industry's toughest years ever.
4 19 Stillhungry

Victor Albisu at Taco Bamba in Ballston. Photo by Jonathan Timmes

Victor Albisu

In 2013, Victor Albisu introduced D.C. diners to Del Campo, a South American fine dining restaurant in Penn Quarter, while simultaneously opening his first Taco Bamba taqueria in Falls Church. The Del Campo space later became Poca Madre, a high-end Mexican restaurant, and an adjoining Taco Bamba—both of which closed in 2020 due to the pandemic. But Albisu has been plenty busy in the suburbs. Today the DMV is home to five Taco Bamba locations, with a sixth soon to open in Rockville. In February of 2020, the chef organized “Smile on the World,” a humanitarian delegation of chefs and dentists who traveled to Peru to provide meals and dental care to more than 1,000 people in underserved communities. He is now eager to expand that effort to other parts of the world. He lives in Vienna with his wife and two boys.

We’ve all been through it this year. There are days and there are days. It’s been a very human experience. There are silver linings. We are an inexpensive restaurant. We’ve continued to feed people in uncertain times.

I trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but my culinary life did not begin there. Taco Bamba was inspired by humble food and humble beginnings. My mother owned a Latin market and butcher shop in Falls Church. I grew up in a very Latin home—Peruvian and Cuban—eating tacos, pupusas, yucca, chicharrones on the street in a cone. For me, that was meaningful food.

My aunt had a restaurant in Miami. I spent summers there, not on the beach, but behind la plancha, learning how to fry eggs without breaking the yolks. I remember it like a great old sitcom: Kid comes back every summer and works the panini station, making Cuban sandwiches. That was my life for years.

Fast-casual food was always part of my existence, so the return to it was kind of an old-glove-type scenario. I slugged it out in the fine dining world for a long time, but when the opportunity presented itself to open the first Taco Bamba in the same shopping center with my mom’s store, I did it. It turned into something that grew on its own.

At Bamba, we offer tacos and Mexican street food. We honor the tradition, but we also try new things. We play every type of music we want to play. Some tacos are heavy metal, some are punk rock and some are opera. All come from the soul. We use tacos as a form of expression and creativity. We name them funny names. It satisfies me and my team—the people who have to make this food over and over again. We want to still be in love with what we are doing. The menu at each Taco Bamba is a little different.

Carne asada is the gateway taco. Chicken tinga is also in the “hey, nice to meet you” category. People come in and they are overwhelmed by all the stuff on the menu, so they just order something that looks familiar. Once we have their trust, that’s when it’s game on. All of a sudden they are trying the “Temple of Doom” or the crispy tripa with extra chilies.

Still, the quality of the food has to come before the story behind it. All my chefs come from fine dining backgrounds. Some of our tacos have eight or nine steps to preparation. It’s very unique for street food.

I’ve found this to be a time of introspection from a company perspective. What does this time have to offer us? Rather than pounding the table over why I can’t do this or that, I decided to really dig into fine-tuning the brand.

We have about 200 employees now. We had to close the D.C. store due to the pandemic. We did our very best to retain as many people as we could. The stores that are supported by neighborhoods, like those in Virginia, have maintained their staffs completely.

I live in the pivot. If you imagine a racetrack, that’s me. It’s like a video game. During Covid, we started doing delivery drops in neighborhoods. By the end of February we had done 180. This idea was born of a very service-driven mentality. It was a way for people to come together, even if from a distance, grab their bags and say hi to their neighbors.

Most of what we do isn’t born out of driving revenue. If that happens, great. But it’s more about what’s a cool idea, what can help, what can be more of a service to people.

I spend my time, as much as I can, in the present. This was a time of major uncertainty. To me, uncertainty is the breeding ground for success. It’s not always an uncomfortable space.

I give a lot of people food. My guys don’t love it when I’m around because I give stuff away. We try to be generous with our portions.

Prior to the pandemic, our business was half takeout and half on-site dining. Then, for a year, it was all takeout. Some stores have patios, but a lot of people just eat in their cars. We saw this well before Covid. People would bring foldout tables to the parking lot in Falls Church, or sit on the curb, or on the hoods of their cars. You see that enough times to feel humbled by your connection with the community.

We keep trying new things. We started Tres, a weekend menu of elevated, heat-at-home meal kits. We are now serving empanadas at each of our five Bamba locations, and we just introduced a build-your-own-taco take-home option called Cup O’Meat.

I’ve been exercising quite a bit, putting a lot of sidewalk under these heels—running, boxing, learning to fight. This year, I lost 100 pounds. There have been a lot of good parts to all of this.

We opened one Taco Bamba during the pandemic and we are about to open another one. We’ll see where things take us.

Categories: Food & Drink