Bandolero: Mex it Up
Bandolero, one of two new designer Mexican restaurants in DC, has an edge but it comes at a price.
Reviewed By Todd Kliman
Bandolero, the latest small-plates spot from Mike Isabella (left), specializes in upscaled Mexican fare. Photographs by Scott Suchman.
Comments () | Published August 28, 2012

Bandolero
Address: 3241 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007
Phone: 202-625-4488
Neighborhood: Georgetown
Cuisines: Tex-Mex
Opening Hours: Open Monday through Thursday for dinner, Friday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Nearby Metro Stops: Foggy Bottom-GWU
Price Range: Moderate
Dress: Informal
Noise Level: Chatty
Best Dishes Enchiladas rojo; octopus tacos; suckling-pig tacos; snapper tostadas; queso fundido; Bandolero margarita.
Price Details: Small plates $5 to $20.

Slideshow: Inside Bandolero

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.

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  • El Perro Sato

    My experience at Bandoleros was awful. Oh, and it's worth noting that DC, is NOT in any way starved for solid taquerias. Pica Taco, Tacos Chilango and el DF offer that "comfort" element of great Mexican food in an inexpensive and authentic setting.

    El Centro DF offers the same but in a sit down restaurant (and it's a bit pricier). I feel that a vibe similar to Centro is what Bandoleros should have aimed for. Instead, we got a restaurant so bad and out of place that it's almost surreal.

    I was turned off by bad service (very slow, and the place was empty. Lots of staff was just standing around), overpriced and mediocre food and the craptastic ambiance. As for the Drinks? Stick to beer, soda or water.

    The margaritas at Bandoleros are so bad that we sent our pitcher back and had to demand our $$$ back. Seriously, Bandoleros makes the worst margaritas I've ever tasted. Their Bandolero Margarita is an insult to whoever invented tequila. It tastes like store bought syrup with way too much cheap booze, in a convenient $30+ package.

    Unless they've made significant changes in the last few months, 1 star is being generous to this place. There should be an "avoid" option...

  • Esummation77

    are you surprised? Isabella was unoriginal and boring at Zatiyna. He did a marginal job on "top chef", held his head above the worst but tried not to stick it to far out. He has nothing but celebrity and financing. If you look hard enough, you'll see several "top chefs" share the same financier, from a locally sourced frederick locale to a DC "steak" man to a NJ pizza chef. They're all excellent chefs, but none are as good as the hype.

  • JaneSmith314

    I had the fish tacos. They were really bad and were basically friend fishsticks in a tiny soft taco. I went to McDonalds for lunch with my niece the next day and ordered a filet of fish sandwich--- I realized that the filet of fish at McDonalds tasted better (and fresher) than the fishsticks (I mean "fish tacos") served at Bandolero. It was pretty bad.

  • Misha_Ricci

    I totally agree about the really small servings. The drinks were the best part. Being from the West, Mexican food is like comfort food to me. Not getting enough on those small plates took away from any sense of comfort.

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