Somehow we got talked into going on opening night. And funnily enough, nobody in our final configuration (myself, Official Girlfriend/Co-Writer of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Sam, Shawn, Mr Magoo, and Danielle) was the original idea-man. But we gamely pressed on to try Mike Isabella's new not-Mexican Mexican restaurant.
It's hard walking into Bandolero without getting the weird impression of, "This is some alternate universe version of Hook." For anyone who had ever visited the restaurant before its 2011 fire, the quirky two-floor layout is the same, but gone are all of the white walls and tablecloths and TV screens of aquariums. In their stead is a series of black and red and more black and Dia de los Muertos skulls. Up front is a small bar section and a long sixteen seat backlit bar. Beyond that is a section portioned off by black metal outdoor fencing, as well as some twos and fours until the open service window. Round the middle, the stairs take you to the quieter upstairs seating where some larger tables reside, like the six we sat at for this meal.
Bandolero has painted over the exposed brick, black with some industrial print and a graphic right upfront of a bandit reminiscent of Calvera from Magnificent Seven. Lighting is provided by some antique-y lanterns and chandeliers, and some red spotlights attached to the walls, but the restaurant remains fairly dim.
This being opening night, the noise level was considerable even during our after-9pm reservation, though one imagines that it could remain this way even months from now. That's because Bandolero fills a considerable hole in the Georgetown restaurant scene: there are high class restaurants for the upper set, and there are plenty of watering holes for the Hoyas, but there are very few eateries of the style that have attracted yuppies and the it crowd, like the approximately 700 or so that now live on 14th Street. One has to think that that's intentional on the part of Georgetown, so it's curious to see how Bandolero lives within its neighbors.
Lucky for us, there were six relatively hungry people at the table, so it wasn't really hard to get a smattering of tastes. Since they came out fast and consistently, instead of listing by how they came out, we'll go with the Mexican bandit theme and sort them by The Good, the Fine, and the We'll Pass.
Perhaps the single greatest dish of the night was by far the queso fundido, a dish that even a few days in, has already received praise from the Post. Made of manchego cheese with bits of duck confit and maitake and a sunny side up egg squished in there, this was every bit as surprising since it so greatly stood apart from not only your garden variety nacho cheese, but from any other presentation of queso we've had in the city so far. Still gooey but sharp and fresh rather than commercial, the chunks of meat were delightful to sample with our baked nachos.
Probably our second favorite dish as a table was the blue crab taquito (in this instance, the literal tiny taco, not the rolled up version), with coconut, red chili, and purple potato. Surprisingly light and surprisingly (and pleasantly) light on the coconut, it had enough flavor for all of us.
Texas nominated her other favorite as the enchilada verde, filled with wild mushrooms, oaxaca cheese, and a mole verde. I thought the mushrooms were the most forward of all the ingredients, which meant I didn't like it as much as the others.
At the very least, we were all decently into the house El Bandolero margarita: espolon blanco tequila, patron citronage, lime, blood orange. Sweet, on tap, and free-flowing; a little finer than say Alero, but probably in line with other high end margaritas. However, Texas did have one problem with the "on-tap" gimmick, saying, "Doesn't that just mean pre-mixed and not fresh?"
The group was otherwise split or ambivalent about a lot of the other dishes. I don't know that anybody
else was into them, but my order of suckling pig tacos with an apple
relish and habanero mustard was at the very least a smart bite, with a
slightly sweet tang that was enjoyable. Coming in pairs, I ended up monopolizing them, though again, no one was really fighting me for them.
My other mild success was the nachos, topped with crispy goat, white beans, goat cheese, and chili de arbol. The goat was interesting and I do love goat cheese, but the joy was short-lived since the toppings were sparse, and frankly then it just became slightly flavored chips. Compared to the insta-joy that was the queso, this was forgettable.
Shawn ordered the flautas, filled with pork cheek in a red chili sauce with queso anejo. The flauta itself was fairly corn forward, with a decent flavor from the pork. Still, as I look back on this dinner, this is the one dish that I struggle to remember the most, outside of a few cursory details. Which is to say it wasn't the best, but it also wasn't terrible.
Texas's order of octopus tacos with adobo and cucumber relish was also met with a lot of, "this is fine." Everything was cooked okay, with the octopus probably a little rubbery, but with a decent char and a fresh taste. Still, it wasn't anything mind-blowing; just a quick few slightly memorable bites.
Our starter platter was also a lot of fine: first, guacamole with salsa roja, masa crisps, and chicharrones; second, sikil pak, a pumpkin seed dip flavored with jalapeno and orange; and third, totopos, fried chips with a ranch-like cream sauce. These weren't bad, they just weren't up to the standards of Bandolero's contemporaries; the guac was good but not Oyamel level, the pumpkin seed dip had a lot of "well, this is very interesting" reactions, and the fried tortillas seemed like a cheeseless chilaquiles, which is to say, quickly soggy and missing the point.
The We'll Pass
On the things that were suffering opening night jitters, part one was the skirt steak tacos, with refried beans, avocado, salsa, and crispy onions. The overwhelming feeling was that this was very "Taco Bell" like. And as much as we love Taco Bell here at DCWD, this wasn't meant to be a flattering comment. The steak was a little overcooked, and as a whole it fell flat, probably because at $9 a pair, we wanted more than just the #2.
The empanada was also by-and-large not something we enjoyed. Filled with corn, potato, and jack cheese on top of a poblano escabeche, the whole of it tasted inauthentic to the point of being obvious. I understand Mike Isabella's not-Mexican Mexican, and while that succeeded on other dishes, there was something off-putting about this attempt.
My least favorite by far were the wild mushroom tacos, with tomatillo and a chipotle marmalada. This was a perfect example of a dish made for vegetarians by substituting mushrooms or tofu where meat usually goes. The mushrooms were soggy and the flavor profiles just didn't match up for me. Definite pass.
The queso alone is worth a trip back. And the restaurant is one of the first M Street bright spots for a certain crowd. But obviously still working out some of the kinks.
Food Rating: ** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 2.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Party in the USA
Vibe: Energetic to Noisy
Cost: $$ (out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)