You know the drill: we open every write-up about a taqueria talking about what a tough time we’ve had finding good Mexican food in the DC area. Since we started, we’ve received a couple of good recommendations, and we’ve been fortunate enough to find a few winners on our own. At this point, I may be willing to concede that we were looking in the wrong places to begin with.
From now until April 1st, we know exactly where to look for by-the-book tacos in an unexpected setting: Tacos Impala. This pop-up taco stand has taken up residency in the Philadelphia Water Ice Company’s digs at 1204 H Street, NE, and they’ll be turning out the tortillas for another two months. If you miss out, you have only yourself to blame.
Everything about this classic street food is handmade fresh on a daily basis, from the corn tortillas to the chopped radish, onion and cilantro that make up the only available toppings. Even the two sauce options – a green, tomatillo-based salsa verde and the milder red ‘Sauce Impala’ using guajillos – are made from scratch. They make ingredient runs to the Florida Market six days a week. And they show a deft hand when it comes to spicing the meats and beans that fill those homemade tortillas.
The story on what brings these tasty tacos to H Street after the jump.
Tacos Impala is a collaboration between Erik Bruner-Yang, who will be opening ramen shop Toki Underground within the next few weeks, and Troy Hickman, who is actually building Toki (and who built out Jimmy Valentine’s on Bladensburg Road). As if they didn’t have enough going on getting the noodle shop off the ground, they decided H Street needed a taqueria like the ones Hickman knows from visits to his family in Mexico . So they approached Khadijah Bronson about making use of her storefront cheesesteak and Italian ice shop and convinced her, despite initial hesitation, to allow them to take over the space during her annual winter break.
I met up with Chef Erik the other day and took a look around what is currently Tacos Impala. It didn’t take long – the space is small. Even so, it allows plenty of room for a handful of women to turn out as many as 500 hand-made corn tortillas and three kinds of tacos over the course of the day. Think of them like the “Pasta Mamas” at Filomena in Georgetown, their experience resulting in a reliable and deliciously consistent tortilla with just a bit of chew. They also make sure the guys “don’t mess with the recipes too much,” according to Bruner-Yang.
It seems to be working out pretty well so far. The recipes are intact, though the team has found that local diners prefer their carne asada a bit more tender than the traditional version they started out with, so they now cook the steak to a more medium-rare finish. Their beans have been a big hit among vegetarians and carnivores alike, with a rich smoky sweetness that makes it hard to believe they’re vegan, cooked without lard unlike most refried beans (though the bean tacos are only vegan if you forgo the cotija cheese on top).
And their tortillas are such a hit that they’ve been tapped to supply them for the H Street Country Club, as well. Each day they crank out at least 200 tortillas and walk them down H Street in time for dinner service. It’s a win-win situation: the Country Club gets fresh tortillas made from scratch each day and Tacos Impala gets a steady revenue stream to help them pay the bills while focusing on the food they love. The limited scale of the venture ensures that no one is getting rich at this point.
“This is all part of a bigger dream,” says Chef Erik. “We’re doing it to get the Tacos Impala name out there and to have some fun.” For now, their focus is on Toki Underground. But they would love the opportunity to do a full-scale Tacos Impala restaurant in the neighborhood at some point…assuming they could find someone who wanted to underwrite the concept.
One thing they wouldn’t want to do: a food truck. “I love the community that has developed along H Street,” Bruner-Yang explains. “Driving a truck from location to location has a different feel, and that’s not what we’re going for.”
From now until April, you can check out Tacos Impala for lunch or dinner every day. They’re open from noon to 11 PM Monday through Thursday and from noon until 3 AM Friday and Saturday. On Sundays (the one day they can’t get to a market for reinforcements), they’re open from noon until they sell out, which is usually by 8 PM. Tacos are $3 each for carne asada, pork carnitas or frijoles and cotija cheese topped with your choice of salsas. Beverages are available for $1.50, including Jarritos sodas, Coke and water.