Bandolero: Mex it Up

Bandolero, one of two new designer Mexican restaurants in DC, has an edge but it comes at a price.

Bandolero, the latest small-plates spot from Mike Isabella (left), specializes in upscaled Mexican fare. Photographs by Scott Suchman

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

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,

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.