Mike Isabella’s Bandolero scores big with trendy Modern Mexican

Mike Isabella’s Bandolero scores big with trendy Modern Mexican

For some would-be diners, the big barriers to a night out at Bandolero will be chiefly two: on the one hand, fighting for a seat at the table among the hordes of bright young Georgetown things sure to be packing the place to the gills — and then, two, taking a meal in a space that can feel a bit more torture chamber than Modern Mexican mecca.

It all takes a little getting used to, but you have to give the design team here credit for really running with the whole Day of the Dead vibe said to inspire the ambiance at Bandolero. An exposed-brick wall, acid-blanched and festooned with creepy lithographs of ill-fated Mexican revolutionaries, runs the length of the dining-room floor. Tall black pointily spiked sections of wrought-iron fencing separate the tables. Skulls of indeterminate provenance (cow? horse? human?) abound. All of this in addition to the lighting, the dimmer kept at a sort of very low, diffuse, midnight-in-the-graveyard pall. Think “From Dusk Till Dawn” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Bandolero’s aiming at.

All of which makes its clientele stand out in sharp, almost ludicrous relief. Four months on from its opening, Bandolero appears to have become the latest It Restaurant in Georgetown — a place to be seen. Even for a late dinner on a recent Sunday, nary a table or barstool went unoccupied (not that there are a ton of seats to begin with; Bandolero’s apparently pretty cagey about fostering its own exclusivity). Still, maybe one could say all those salmon-shorts and slinky reflective minidresses served well to lighten the air of doom and gloom.

So it’s easy enough, certainly, to be skeptical — after all, the hype at certain D.C. hotspots far outstrips the food. Upon arrival, this reviewer’s dining companions voiced varying levels of wariness — that is, until it emerged that Bandolero is a Mike Isabella joint, he of “Top Chef” and (more locally) Graffiato repute, at which point the mood shifted to one of palpable excitement for the fare on offer.

And there, as they say, is the rub. The Modern Mexican Isabella dishes up here is an absolute revelation: Eschewing wild, improbable-sounding concoctions, Bandolero’s MO seems to be, simply, to do relatively traditional stuff really, really well.

To wit, the guacamole — as one dining companion observed, a good barometer for any Mexican establishment worth its salt. “Anyone can make it,” this diner said, “but almost nobody makes it that well.” Not a problem here. As light as you’d please, on a summer’s eve, and complexly seasoned — Isabella and Co. aren’t saying how they do it — Bandolero’s got the goods: a guac that’s somehow both robust and subtle, and one that pairs delectably with its accompanying heap of chicharrones, a generous basketful of the salty fried pork rinds, popular pretty much everywhere in the realm of Spanish influence, whose curlicued contours make for perfect dipping vessels. The combination is light and airy enough to whet the appetite without slaking it completely (again, a canny strategy, given the $13 price tag).

And speaking of appetite-whetting and conversation-lubricating, enter the much bruited-about (rightly so) Bandolero cocktail menu. The entries can come off a tad intimidating at first, what with the esoteric ingredients (e.g., in the case of El Padrino, “casa noble anejo, carpano antica, chocolate mole, angostura bitters”), but chances are you’re already feeling brave, having chosen to nosh in this forbidding phantasmagoria. Our advice? Throw caution to the wind and opt for the Perro Viejo, an Old-Fashioned the likes of which Don Draper never got within a whiff of — a smooth, smoky-sweet mélange of “illegal repossessed” mezcal, agave syrup and those aforementioned bitters. For something a touch breezier, go with the Aviation, a blend of gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and crème de violette that puts your lowly Tom Collins to shame. And if it’s a hangover you’re nursing, the Michelada offers sweet relief: A south-of-the-Border twist on the Bloody Mary that incorporates Corona, for froth, and packs a piquant punch courtesy of a chile-de-arbol injection, this is just the rejuvenating hair-of-the-dog the doctor ordered. (Not a Bloody Mary aficionado? Sub in the Casa en Fuego margarita — a tangy, refreshing commingling of strawberry and lime juices with habañero-infused tequila.)

You can’t really go wrong in the lead-up to the main courses, which Bandolero’s menu divvies up between sections labeled Tacos & Enchiladas and Traditional. As to the former, Isabella’s minions manage the neat task of keeping their mini-tortillas (three to an order) both crispy and lightly doughy, a pleasing textural paradox that ably serves the featured players of each varietal. Our dining party opted for the skirt-steak and suckling-pig offerings, $12 and $13, respectively, of which the latter was the clear winner — and very possibly the night’s standout selection. Packed nearly to the point of being difficult to handle without spillage, the habañero mustard and julienned apple nicely counterbalanced each other’s profiles without drowning out the true porcine star of the show. The only downside? Occupying as they did a kind of gray area between tapas-style small plates and true entrée portion — and, of course, being so exquisite — one order almost certainly won’t be enough.

As for the non-taco selections, here Bandolero provided more of a mixed bag. A heaping of nachos was an admirable effort but failed to greatly impress, its shredded crispy goat scattered thinly throughout and chile de arbol declining to amp up the heat beyond much more than the level of pale fire — but then consider the Queso Fundido, a bowlful of duck confit, melted manchego cheese and sunny-side-up egg so artery-cloggingly rich that to call it decadent just doesn’t do it justice. This reviewer required the assistance of fully three aides-de-camp in packing the stuff away (helpfully, Bandolero provides more of those terrific tortillas, on the side, for sopping the mixture up). Here, finally, was a dish that tipped our scales over to the Seriously Full.

And so, in its own way, Bandolero’s got something for everyone: the scene-making Georgetown denizen, the discriminating drinker, the full-fledged gourmand. Might sound weird to say of a place with such a calculatedly macabre atmosphere, but Bandolero is, in the end, a place to eat, drink and be very merry indeed.