Mike Isabella’s idea of a perfect dinner out has three essential components — a welcome feel, cocktail in hand and delicious food at the ready.
Those are the elements the “Top Chef All Stars” runner-up is incorporating at his new restaurant Bandolero (3241 M Street, N.W.) where he likes to “have fun with his food by changing flavors and textures” in the traditional Mexican dishes he offers up with new twists.
A reservation for eight is difficult to get at Bandolero, but in my opinion it’s the perfect number to experience all Bandolero has to offer. We walked in, the hostess greeted us warmly, brought us to the remainder of our party, and we were seated. Our waiter approached, explained the small plates concept, and took our drink orders. In moments drinks were being passed around the table. Throughout the evening the exceptional staff including general manager, James Horn, served us and others attentively but not intrusively. Our glasses were always full, we never searched for a plate and there was always food on the table.
When opening Bandolero, Isabella wanted two things: “lots of tacos and strong margaritas.” Drinks by head mixologist, Sam Babcock, are not only strong but delicious renditions of classics. Each drink is perfectly balanced. The basic margarita falls short on flavor, but don’t waste time on the basic when standouts like the frozen prickly pear margarita exist; it’s Isabella’s favorite. Other well-crafted drinks include the El Dorado with a five-spice syrup that adds a deep warmth to the cocktail, the fresh Jesus Malverde has cucumber, lime, agave and pork barrel hellfire bitters, and the Casa En Fuego was a mouth full of rich fire from a habanero-infused tequila.
The moment the first dish arrived, flavors began exploding in our mouths. The guacamole is tangy and fresh, and not only does Bandolero succeed with its guacamole but it also serves up an exquisite dip called sikil pak composed of pumpkin seeds, jalapenos and orange. After the dips, we moved on to taquitos and tostadas, a course we quickly dubbed “Mexican sushi.” These fresh raw bites were perfect combinations of unexpected flavors. The blue crab with coconut and red chili was too good to pass up, even though I’m sensitive to shellfish. The tuna with ginger and sweet potato as well as the snapper with charred mango and jicama were the two overall favorites at the table.
Then it was time for tacos. We couldn’t wait to try the crispy mahi mahi with chipotle, avocado and lime but we ended up being blown away by the complexity of flavors in the suckling pig tacos with apple and habanero mustard. Each bite of this taco with its fresh ingredients was absolute perfection. The BBQ chicken taco however, was dry and bland.
We started getting full, but couldn’t resist ordering a few more items. I had been eying the nachos with crispy goat and goat cheese and they turned out to be amazing. Also, the queso fundido with duck confit, manchego and egg was delectable. The sweet plantains were almost as good as my Cuban grandmother’s. After such fantastic courses, we couldn’t possibly eat anything else, at least until dessert. We ordered the sopapillas — fried donuts with dulce de leche, the besitos de coco (little coconut cookies) and the spicy chocolate ice cream. Before we knew it the plates were scraped clean.
As I look back at the meal I realize that Bandolero gets high marks with almost every drink and dish. Isabella’s menu is creative, playful and full of unexpected combinations. The Day of the Dead theme of the restaurant feels authentic, but it also creates a very dark and loud dining room. We found ourselves yelling across the table when conversing. However, the bar at the front of the restaurant is a bright warm spot with reclaimed materials where the playfulness of the theme shines through. Bandolero is an absolute must try, and without a doubt serves up some of the best Mexican cuisine I have tasted in the city.