When Mike Isabella opened Graffiato last June, no write-up of the Italian restaurant could begin without mention of his Top Chef-approved pepperoni sauce. Fast forward to last night and the opening of Isabella’s “modern Mexican” spinoff, Bandolero, and it looks like there might be a new saucy sherriff in town: Its name is queso fundido.
Often thought of as a starter, merely a cheesy bath in which to dunk tortilla chips while downing Dos Equis, Isabella’s queso fundido appears among Bandolero’s main courses, and for good reason. Served in a square glass bowl, a warm base of creamy, melted manchego is topped with tender ribbons of duck confit, savory maitake mushrooms and a sunny-side up egg, yolk cooked to just shy of firmness. At $14, it’s served with a large soup spoon, and when blended together into one unctuous spread and layered atop the soft flour tortillas it’s served with, it’s like folding the most velvety of fajitas.
After sampling more than half a dozen small plates, tacos and tostadas from the Georgetown restaurant — which takes over the space formerly occupied by Hook, closed by a 2011 fire — the queso fundido is the one I’m still thinking about. But it was far from the only surprise on Isabella’s menu.
I skipped the guacamole and went for the sikil pak ($6), a spread of crushed pumpkin seeds, jalapeno peppers and citrus that shares a similar, albeit lighter, texture to its avocado-based relative; its origins are Mayan, and it’s served with a basket of tortilla chips and — gird your arteries — chicharrones, fried pork rinds.
Isabella’s tacos are served two to an order and are generously piled with toppings: Saying no to the suckling pig variety ($13), topped with apple shards and habanero mustard, was something I was not prepared to do.
Stylistically, Bandolero feels like a mix between a pair of 14th Street establishments: the lighting and design flourishes feel like Robert Rodriguez’s set designer retouched the bar at Black Jack, while the decor echoes the dia de los muertos vibe of the basement tequila cellar at El Centro D.F. The soundtrack pumps everything from the Rolling Stones and the Clash (we heard “London Calling” twice in a 90-minute span) to Clipse’s “Wamp Wamp,” all at a formidable volume; the atmosphere in the dining room is convivially rambunctious.
Margaritas are pushed hard by the waitstaff (who wear T-shirts emblazoned with what look like stylized ammunition shawls) and for good reason: the “El Mata Amigos” margarita ($9) was exactly what was needed on a muggy D.C. afternoon, the sweetness of the seasonal prickly pear flavor cut sharply and precisely by the sting of the tequila. You won’t have to wait very long for your margarita, either: just like the prosecco at Isabella’s Graffiato, it’s available on tap.
The Food section will have a more thorough take on Bandolero in the coming weeks; in the meantime, I’m telling you: it’s all about the queso fundido.