Every day is Dia de los Muertos at Mike Isabella’s new restaurant Bandolero in the busy Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The Top Chef All-Stars runner-up opened his second restaurant yesterday, but he wants you to know this is no run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant.
Mike nixed the mind-numbing mariachi music and technicolor take and opted for an atypical approach to South of the Border. Calling the 180-seat eatery cemetery-chic isn’t a stretch—dark walls, wooden tables crafted by Mike’s father-in-law, and reclaimed metal gates from cemeteries contribute to the decor that’s more decadent than dude ranch.
Mike also bucks tradition on his menu and incorporates his own modern twists on Mexican fare. Chilaquiles come topped with lobster, standard nachos get a crispy goat upgrade, and a side of sweet corn tamal grits gets hit with coconut and poblano. The taco-centric menu has ten offerings from octopus and cucumber relish to a marinated and grilled skirt steak. There’s even a nod to local flavors—you know the Maryland blue crab, red chili, and purple potato taquito is fresh from the bay.
Crispy Goat Nachos with White Beans, Goat Cheese, Chile di Arbol
Photo: Greg Powers
Blue Crab Taquitos with Coconut, Red Chili, Purple Potato
Photo: Greg Powers
Take a seat at the long black bar and you’ll find something surprising on draft. It wouldn’t be Mexican without margaritas, and Mike ups the ante at Bandolero by becoming the first DC restaurant to have margaritas on tap. The staff stirs together a fresh batch of their house-made mix each day, and the tap keeps blood orange margaritas gushing all night alongside the local and Mexican beers. The extensive drink menu reads as Mike’s ode to mezcal and tequila. The bartender serves up classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, but swaps out bourbon for a kickier Mexican spirit.
For three years, Mike manned the pans as the executive chef at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya and watched the city’s food culture expand before setting out to build his own restaurant empire. In June he will blow out the first birthday candle for his Italian-inspired restaurant Graffiato in Chinatown, and now he will have even more culinary clout with Bandolero.
You’d think this proud papa would be apt to sit back and enjoy his success, but he’s got two more eateries on the way and his first cookbook coming out in the fall. He credits DC’s exploding food scene and the chance to make a big impact for his devotion to the District. One thing is clear: Mike isn’t leaving Washington anytime soon.
By: Jessica Stringer