When chef Victor Albisu opened Del Campo in the spring of 2013, it was lit. The South American-inspired grill fascinated with fire – from burning and blackening to smoking and searing – earned blazing reviews and a Chef of the Year RAMMY Award in 2015 for Albisu. Located in a white-hot spot on the northern edge of Chinatown – adjacent to the upcoming CityCenterDC development complex and just a few blocks away from what was then the Verizon Center (it’s now the Capital One Arena) – it seemed like the restaurant’s flame would burn brightly for a long time.
After four years though, there were signs its success was flickering. The nearly 200 seat restaurant opened with a more formal white tablecloth sensibility, but in early 2017, the linens were stripped away, the space was revamped to give it a more rock ‘n’ roll vibe, and a new menu was rolled out.
“Who was going to predict how this city was going to change?” asks the chef rhetorically. “How many restaurants were going to come, open, and then close or tread water.”
There was also the matter of the competition. “We live in a day and age, where things can easily become gimmicks and the substance can be drained,” says Albisu. “I remember going to random restaurants and seeing burnt this and smoked that in combination with the things we were doing. That’s just part of the game and the gig. It’s fair, but it’s something you have to learn to handle as a business owner.”
Lunch sales at Del Campo had always been a weak spot. So, late last year, Albisu nixed midday service to transform the bar and front dining room into a pop-up for Taco Bamba, which already had a trio of successful outlets in Virginia. The unconventional taqueria offers a mixture of traditional and chef-driven, globally minded tacos, including those inspired by Vietnamese banh mi, Korean bulgogi, and a Royale with Cheese.
The eatery was an instant hit, the lines often extending out the door and down the block. Unfortunately, that success didn’t help Del Campo. The chef shuttered it this past March, just shy of its fifth anniversary. The flash had faded.
However, this is not the story of failure. Albisu had wanted to open a Taco Bamba in D.C. for some time but hadn’t found the right location. “Then people reminded me that there was a space right underneath my nose,” he says.
So the taqueria went from pop-up to permanent, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meanwhile, Del Campo’s back dining room and a portion of the patio would become a completely new concept, Poca Madre (little mother), a modern-minded Mexican restaurant with just over 100 seats that would only be open for dinner. Albisu had been traveling throughout Mexico – Baha, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Tulum, and elsewhere – to do R&D for Taco Bamba, or so he thought. “Somehow it started to eat away at me to honor this movement in Mexican cuisine,” he says, pointing specifically to meals he’d enjoyed at El Destilado in Oaxaca and Mexico City’s Pujol. “I was very touched by the food and the warmth of the culture.”
Standout dishes include a high-minded play on esquites, a grilled corn salad. Corn risotto comes funked up with shaved truffles and huitlacoche – a corn fungus so revered in culinary circles south of the border that it’s nicknamed “Mexican truffle” – seasoned with classic Tajin spice mix and topped off with popcorn. Sweet talking ceviche featuring hibiscus sea salt-crusted hamachi is complemented by corn and roasted garlic puree, and kaffir lime hibiscus sauce. And al pastor-style duck gets the confit treatment in duck fat, achiote, bay leaves, and avocado leaves before being roasted to order and served with scratch-made masa tortillas and a sweet pineapple sauce. Definitely not mom’s cooking.
Even as Poca Madre blazes forward with progressive Mexican fare and Taco Bamba continues to expand (another location is set to open in Fairfax, Virginia shortly), Del Campo is not forgotten. Albisu intends to rekindle the concept in the future.
Photo credit: Greg Powers.