Washington has no shortage of tacos, but lately, it feels like a vast conspiracy by Big Tortilla. By our count, at least a dozen Mexican restaurants—mostly taquerias—are opening in the first half of 2018.
The tacos draw inspiration from Baja (Cortez), Mexico City (Butterfly), and Southern California (Tacos Tortas & Tequila). There are fusion tacos (Zen Taco), all-you-can eat tacos (Buena Vida), beer garden tacos (TacoArepa), and Hawaiian-style tacos (Tiki Taco). Some come from prominent local chefs (Victor Albisu finally debuted Taco Bamba in DC), while others are attached to nightlife names (the owner of Echostage is behind Taqueria Local). Even Taylor Gourmet—a hoagie shop!—is suddenly serving tacos this month, with discussions to keep them around.
Plenty of trends come in waves—seriously, where did all this poke come from?—but there is something about this moment that seems particularly ripe for a taco boom. This is the moment, after all, of peak casual dining. Few foods fit the zeitgeist like tacos and margaritas.
It’s worth noting that very few of theses new spots come from people of Mexican heritage. As always, the line between appropriation and celebration of Mexican cuisine is up for debate. At the same time, very few of these new places are aiming for so-called “authenticity.” While you can get your fix of classic street meat cuerito or lengua tacos at La Placita in Hyattsville or Taqueria Habanero in Columbia Heights, the new-wave taquerias are more likely to experiment with kung pao shrimp and smoked tofu.
“Chefs want to try new things, and they’re branching out and they’re picking up on all these amazing cuisines that have been always been there,” says Joe Raffa, executive chef for José Andrés‘s ThinkFoodGroup. He helped open Oyamel in 2004, which made early headlines for serving cheffy versions of Oaxcan grasshopper tacos, and recently launched its fast-casual spinoff, Butterfly Tacos Y Tortas.
You can only reinvent the burger or pizza so many ways. But when it comes to tacos, many local restaurateurs feel like there are still unfilled niches. True or not, they each swear their place is “not just another Mexican restaurant.”
It helps that Mexican food is having a moment on a global scale—not just when it comes to street foods but also on the high-end. Famed chef René Redzepi garnered worldwide attention with his pop-up of Noma (the “World’s Best Restaurant”) in Tulum using indigenous techniques and ingredients, while Mexico City hotspots like Quintonil and Pujol (with its oft-discussed taco “omakase”) have become must-try stops for globetrotting foodies. Tourism to Mexico is also on the rise, perhaps fueling new appreciation for the regional nuances in the cuisine beyond America’s cheesy Tex-Mex.
As the Serbian owner of Balkan restaurant Ambar, Ivan Iricanin might not immediately seem like the likeliest person to venture into Mexican food. But he now has two such ventures in Silver Spring: Buena Vida, where you can get a deal on unlimited ceviches, guacamoles, and tacos, and Tacos Tortas & Tequila (TTT), an all-day spot serving casual fare. Before he was introducing diners to rakia and ćevapi, Iricanin helped restaurateur Richard Sandoval open El Centro D.F. in DC. “I don’t know French. I don’t know Italian. This is what I know. And then I was thinking that I have something to say,” he explains.
There’s also a business case to be made for the taqueria. For starters, it’s a whole lot easier to sell to the public than Balkan food. Plus, Iricanin says its easier to find staff—no small perk amid DC’s massive staffing shortage. “Latin culture is big here. There’s a lot of people who can cook that food. It’s easier to find chefs for that type of cuisine,” Iricanin notes.
Tacos are also perfect for fast-casual service—a genre more and more chefs and restaurateurs are trying to capitalize on in hopes of becoming the next Sweetgreen or Cava.
“You can do it in smaller spaces. You can do it without expensive general managers and expensive chefs,” says Iricanin. “That’s something that is scalable. That is something that can go further.” That’s not to say the food is cheap to produce; Iricanin says he’s using high-end steak and organic chicken.
Takoda co-owner Ryan Seelbach, who recently opened rooftop taco joint Cortez in Shaw, says they like to do food that’s going to lend itself well to a big bar program and lively bar scene (where many restaurants make their real money). Tacos go hand-in-hand with beers, tequila, and mezcal. Who doesn’t want a margarita (or two or three) with their carnitas and carne asada?
Restaurateur John Andrade and chef Logan McGear recently decided to close their Adams Morgan Italian restaurant Rosario because of lagging sales. So, what are they putting in its place? A taqueria.
“You dine out on Italian once a month. You dine out on tacos once a week,” Andrade says.
That’s the thing about tacos. Tacos are happy hour. Tacos are late-night. Tacos are breakfast. Tacos are a “fourth meal.” Tacos are a safe bet, which is particularly appealing at a time when DC’s restaurant scene is becoming crowded with competition, and everyone’s chattering about whether sluggish business is the sign of a bubble.
“People see that tacos sell, and now everybody wants to sell tacos,” says Mexico City native Alfredo Solis, the chef and owner of El Sol and Mezcalero. He worries that too many of DC’s new taquerias are in it purely for business reasons.
“Sure, I want to make money to pay my employees, pay my rent. But for me, it’s not about business,” Solis says. “I feel so good when people try my food and they really love it. To me, it’s more about bringing Mexican food to my customers. It’s more personal.”
Whatever the motivations, the taco boom could not have come at a more salient political moment. As President Trump continues to push for a border wall and crack down on immigration, his supporters have perceived “taco trucks on every corner” as a threat. It’s tempting to imagine that DC’s taco boom is its own small form of resistance, but we’ve yet to encounter a restaurateur opening a taqueria specifically to stick it to Trump.
“You could start playing games with politics and [saying] ‘Does that have anything to do with it?’ I don’t think it does,” Raffa says. “Mexican food has been in our culinary consciousness for a long time, and as the city has grown in culinary sophistication, I think it was just a matter of time.”