I intended to wait until Mike Isabella’s new restaurant Bandolero settled in to its spot in Georgetown before trying it. Because normally you have to wait for a restaurant to actually open before you can eat there. But the Bandolero at Tackle Box pop-up offers a sneak peek into the upcoming small-plates Mexican restaurant. As a professed super-fan of Isabella’s Graffiato, I decide a preview is just what I need to tide me over until the opening.
The email from City Eats offers a $65 five-course tasting menu. The website indicates the menus is a “surprise that will be revealed when you dine.” This means I must dip into the small pool of my regular dining companions who have no strict food restrictions or aversions. This eliminates a lot of people. But I know just who to ask, and I end up with three friends who are ready to eat with abandon. So when the server asks us if we have any dining restrictions, we smile and reply: “No, we left them at home,” referring to our kosher-keeping husbands. The tasting menu actually features some vegetarian and fish choices which would have been fine for them. On the bright side, we have nothing to prevent us from ordering blue crab taquitos or suckling pig tacos. Guilt free.
In an interview for Washingtonian’s Best Bites column, Isabella has promised that Bandolero will offer a generous selection of margaritas. My toughest decision of the night is which one to order. I finally settle on “Our Way” which features tequila, lime, blood orange, and gran marnier float. The server warns that this packs quite a punch. I sip it slowly and handle it just fine. One of my friends has “Malverde” with mezcal, agave, cucumber, lime, cilantro, and hellfire bitters. The cucumber taste is quite strong and I find the drink really quite unpleasant. But don’t go by me- I tend to like fruity drinks. Another friend has “Smoked” which is a margarita with patron, orange curacao, lime, and mezcal float. You can take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but I prefer “Our Way.”
Our cocktails are accompanied by chicharrones (fried pork rinds) and chips, along with guacamole and a small side of salsa. In addition there is a gritty dip called “sikil pak” made from pumpkin seed, jalapeno, orange, and cilantro. It has a subtle taste at first, but there is a spicy finish that sneaks up on you. I like that there is variation from the typical chips and salsa we’ve all come to expect from Mexican restaurants across the U.S.
The small plates concept has its perils. I often am frustrated when sharing with too many people, which means I only get a bite or two of a dish. The dishes here come mostly in three to an order (three taquitos, three tacos, etc). This means we are left with an awkward splitting situation, since we are four people. We double up on a couple of dishes which we anticipate we’ll like best. But that means we get to try fewer dishes. It’s a conundrum.
It’s important to note that the tastes and experiences at Bandolero at Tackle Box can only be judged in context. Some of the dishes may not make it to Georgetown. Others will be tweaked. In keeping with the theme of the pop-up, I’m going to provide a glimpse at a few of our favorites.
The enchilida roja is my favorite on the traditional section of the menu. The Mexican chocolate infuses it with just enough sweetness to be satisfying. It’s a nice size portion, so I don’t have to feel frustrated by having a teensy bite.
Our next dishes are taquitos: tuna with ginger and sweet potato, and blue crab with coconut, red chile, and lime. I like the flavor combinations in both of these, although if truth be told, I’d like a touch more heat with the blue crab.
I can’t decide which of the next two dishes I like best.
Sucking pig tacos are worthy of all those descriptive words that usually make me cringe. Yummy comes immediately to mind. Hate the word. Understand the sentiment. Juicy meat, sweet crispy apple, spicy habanero mustard. Y-U-M-M-Y. I hate myself now, but I can’t help it.
The sopes with lamb picadillo, chipotle goat cheese, and picked jalapeno is another big winner. I am thankful we’ve ordered two portions of this dish, because I need extra bites to confirm its excellence. The sweetness of the raisins, the crispness of the sopes, the smoky lamb, and the creamy goat cheese, make for one great taste. Excellence confirmed.
As part of the tasting menu we each get to pick a dessert. There are four choices, so obviously we order one of each. Two desserts feature coconut, which means I’m out. My friends rave about the coconut cookies, but I am not swayed to try them. I really detest coconut. This leaves me to sample tres leches parfait and spicy mango gelato. The gelato is texturally fine, but I don’t detect much spice. The parfait is a refreshing end to the meal.
Mike Isabella is clearly eager to share Bandolero with us. He’s smartly created advance buzz for what is certain to become a popular destination. I am definitely intrigued by his blend of traditional Mexican flavors along with some unexpected creative twists along the way. It’s nice to be able to pop in to Bandolero for a preview. At the end of this week, however, it will be time to say adios to Bandolero at Tackle Box, and await the word on when we can say “hola” to the real thing. Muchas gracias, Mike Isabella. We’ll be waiting.
The Bandolero at Tackle Box pop-up is open from May 1- May 5. Check out CityEats for a reservation.
Bandolero, 3241 M Street NW, Washington, DC (the opening date of Bandolero is not yet known.)
A link to my Graffiato review