I’m uncertain what role Bandolero is meant to serve. The place arrived with great fanfare, with websites monitoring its development since not long after Mike Isabella settled into Graffiato, his Penn Quarter restaurant.
Bandolero would appear to cement his mission as a purveyor of boldly flavored small plates in stylish, high-energy settings à la José Andrés, under whom he served as a chef at Zaytinya. (Isabella’s Greek-themed small-plates place is expected to hit 14th Street next year.) The difference is that Isabella’s places are edgier—the inside of Bandolero replaces the airy whiteness of the previous occupant, Hook, with black paint and cattle skulls—and a lot more expensive. My meals at Bandolero averaged $150 for two, with drinks. Even for a designer taqueria, that’s high.
The menu is a parade of snack foods, and it takes a lot of them to add up to dinner. Even then you may come away feeling as though you’ve spent the night nibbling for hours without really sinking into anything.
That’s a mild dissatisfaction, though, compared with sitting at the table as wave after wave of dishes come and go and wondering when the excitement is going to begin.
Isabella dispenses with tradition, and you can imagine him exulting in his cleverness over such dishes as goat nachos with white beans (interesting idea, but mine was as gloppy as the ballpark stuff) and octopus tacos with a smear of whipped potatoes (not bad, just not memorable). His more straightforward takes feel dull. Meatballs had the unappetizing texture of party snacks from Costco despite being fashioned from fresh-ground pork. A chicken enchilada was better, with a sweet-spicy sauce of chilies and chocolate.
The most egregious departure is the lobster taco, which folds sweet meat into a tortilla that looks like imitation black leather. It’s not; the black comes from squid ink—a liquid that’s sometimes stirred into paellas and risottos to give them depth. Here the effect is mostly—well, effect.
At Graffiato, the kitchen might waver in its execution, but Isabella’s dishes reflect a coherent vision informed by his Italian upbringing and Mediterranean training. At Bandolero, he betrays a weakness for the odd, extraneous detail. An otherwise good queso fundido comes with duck confit. Why take the time to cook the duck in its own fat if you’re going to submerge it in melted cheese? Maybe because you can then charge $14 instead of $9?
The fundido is among the larger plates. You might order the tostadas thinking of the traditional definition of the term—a tortilla with refried beans and a dusting of cheese. Isabella’s resemble giant Fritos and come topped with raw snapper. One night a waiter mistakenly brought a second order. It was the best thing we’d eaten all night, and we were about to eat it again. “Great,” my friend said. “The rest of our order’s arrived.”
Snarky, but after a succession of tiny bites, it was easy to understand his cynicism.
Which may only be a response to Isabella’s cynicism. The area might be starved for great Mexican food, but it can’t be so starved that it will put up with a place that trades on celebrity and its Georgetown location while putting out expensive and often mediocre food.
Bandolero may give the designer taqueria a bad name, but that shouldn’t make us condemn the entire genre. Just give us less designer and more taqueria.
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.