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Mike Isabella Says Adios to Bandolero

The “Top Chef” alum pulls out of the Mexican restaurant to focus on his own projects.

Chef Mike Isabella inside Bandolero in 2012. Photographs by Scott Suchman.

No more Top Chef tacos for the Georgetown set. The Washington Post reported this morning that Mike Isabella parted ways with Bandolero and partner Jonathan Umbel. Former chef de cuisine Tony Starr, who previously worked with Isabella at Graffiato and Zaytinya, has been promoted to executive chef.

Isabella says he went all-in on the Mexican concept at the start, overseeing everything from the menu to the name and decor. Still, not everything was under his control in the venture, and his own projects have taken precedence of late.

“These are my restaurants,” says Isabella, referring to his newly opened Greek spot, Kapnos, and adjacent sandwich shop, G. “I really couldn’t put the time and effort into Bandolero that I wanted to. If I’m going to have my name on something, I want to be there as much as possible.”

While Isabella has seen success with his other ventures, Bandolero proved a rocky venture from the start. Reviewers were less than impressed; the taqueria received one star from our own Todd Kliman, and two from the Post’s Tom Sietsema (though with zingers like, “Desserts are bad, which is good, because you don’t want to stick around Bandolero any longer than necessary,” you’d think it would be less). And that’s just on paper. Rumors of Isabella’s departure have been circulating for months, through lawsuits between Umbel and the building’s landlord, amendments to the management agreement, and finally a temporary closure due to a failed health inspection.

As of now, Bandolero will continue to operate as usual, minus the Isabella name. As for Isabella, he’s set to launch the first evening tasting menu at his five-day-old sandwich shop on Saturday. If nothing else, he says the experience with Bandolero was a learning experience.

“I’ll only own my own restaurants from here on out,” he says.

  • Matthew McHale

    Bandolero did not fail a health inspection. Bandolero was fully inspected weeks prior to this incident and passed with an excellent score. There was an incorrect reading of water temperature in the kitchen during a follow up visit which was noted the next morning by a second inspector.

  • jessvoelker

    Hello Matthew and anyone interested in the topic of Bandolero's DOH issue.

    I spoke with owner Jonathan Umbel and a health department rep. Here's that story, which has a link to the report as well.

  • Matthew McHale

    I appreciate your response, Jess. I am an employee of Jonathan and Bethany Umbel who was present during the initial unannounced/random inspection just a few weeks ago that Bandolero passed with an excellent score. I think it unfair to only include the secondary inspection prompted by an anonymous complaint that was coincidentally received just days before both parties were to appear in court without any mention of or link to the initial health department visit.

    None of these listed violations were observed or present during the initial health department inspection just a few weeks ago and I think the extremely brief period of closure speaks to the severity of the alleged infractions. In an article about Bandolero's recent record with the health department it seems to me to be a valid and pertinent part of the whole story.

    I have been through the ServSafe sanitation training program and have over 10 years experience working in restaurants in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Washington D.C. Bandolero has one of the cleanest kitchens and most professional chefs with which I've had the privilege of working. I do not mean to accuse you of not being interested in the the whole story, but to simply point out an important part I believe to be missing. As an employee with no ownership stake in the business my only motivation in commenting comes from an appreciation for the professional manner in which the kitchen is run and the way I have been treated by the Umbels and chef Tony Starr.

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