Bandolero, one of D.C.'s most anticipated new restaurants, opened last night in Georgetown and proved why Mike Isabella is among the city's hottest chefs.
The Top Chef season 6 contestant and Top Chef: All-Stars runner-up threw open the doors to his Mexican small plates restaurant just months after rumors first pegged him as taking over the M Street storefront that formerly housed Hook, which closed after a devastating fire in June 2011. (Bandolero also held two pop-up previews of its modern Mexican menu.)
"When I go out for Mexican food, I want lots of tacos and strong margaritas," said Isabella. Bandolero has both. Fans of Penn Quarter sister Graffiato's Prosecco on tap will be pleased to find the bubbly beverage also on the menu here but not to be outdone, Bandolero also offers its El Bandolero (espolon blanco tequila, patron citronage, lime, blood orange, gm float) margarita on tap, alongside an extensive tequila list designed for a true connoisseur.
The restaurant's 'Day of the Dead' atmosphere comes complete with metal cemetery gates and animal skulls on the walls. The interior is dark, the music is loud and the theme is converted-warehouse-western-chic.
Everything on the menu puts a unique spin on traditional Mexican fare. Queso fundido features goat confit, you'll find pork cheek in the flautas, a traditional Mayan dip stars pumpkin seeds and the enchilada rojo has a hint of Mexican chocolate. There's enough variety to leave you swearing to come back (with a bigger group) as soon as you've opened the menu.
Plates are meant to be shared and passed around. If your server asks if you want to start with the house-made guacamole, say yes, and you'll be rewarded with a bowl of chunky, made-to-order guacamole. Dig in with masa chips and chicharrones (pork rinds).
Pick a few tacos from the extensive menu -- it's less 'chicken or beef?' and more 'octopus or suckling pig?' (although barbecue chicken and skirt steak both make the list). Mahi mahi tacos ("fish stick tacos, we call them") are crunchy yet light, served with a red cabbage slaw and creamy tomato escabeche. The charred asparagus tacos bring the fresh flavor of the farmer's market to the table, sprinkled with spinach leaves and sweet beet salsa.
Interesting textures can be found in the enchilada verde (packed with wild mushrooms and Oaxaca cheese) and sauteed calamari in tomato sauce, which has a Spanish flair and eight chewy little arms.
Don't leave without perusing the dessert menu, featuring spicy mango sorbet, coconut flan and sopapillas. Margarita cake (tequila soaked almond cake, citrus salsa, salted crema, margarita granita) ends the evening on a sweet note.
In the race to be the Top Chef: All-Star of Washington, D.C., Mike Isabella has just raised the bar. Your move, Spike, Carla and Bryan.
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