Mike Isabella told me that he had sampled Mexican fare all over the country in a search for authenticity (and perhaps inspiration) for Bandolero, his forthcoming take on south-of-the-border cuisine in Georgetown. The menu that he debuted during his pop-up last weekend at the new Living Social retail space in Penn Quarter revealed a restless creative mind still trying to fuse together many different elements of Latin and modern American cooking into a coherent cuisine.
A number of the missteps last weekend could, in all fairness, be chalked up to the unfamiliar kitchen at the renovated 120-year-old structure at 918 F St. NW. The baby back ribs paired with the mole negro, for example, were dried out, arguably from a line cook still learning the temperature fluctuations and other particulars of the Living Social ovens; regardless of the reason, though, the dry ribs forced the complex mole to provide most of the moisture, which is not part of its job description.
Isabella also may be trying to stretch Mexican cooking beyond some of its recognizable contours. I’m thinking specifically about his take on a taquito, in which he fried a root chip into the shape of a taco shell (a nice nod to Tex-Mex, that beleaguered bastardization of Mexican cuisine) and stuffed it with blue crab (regional ingredient plug!), coconut milk, red chili pepper and lime. It was everything you could want: moist, meaty, crispy, spicy. It also tasted like something you’d find at an upscale Thai restaurant.
Then again, Isabella will trot out something so unexpected — and so tied to Mexico’s long and varied history of cooking — that it reminds you how intense this man is about everything he does in the kitchen. He demonstrated his seriousness of purpose right with the opening course: It was a sikil pak, a pumpkin-seed dip that apparently dates back to the Mayan era. It perfectly balanced earthiness, spice and acidity; the bonus was that Isabella allowed diners to select their own dipping tool: house-made tortilla chips or, far better, chef-driven chicharrones.
Let’s just say that one more time: chef-driven chicharrones. I’ll have a bucket of them, please!
The majority of the dishes at the pop-up Bandolero displayed the kind of ingredient-driven craft you’ve come to expect from Isabella. Few of them, however, stuck in memory, where I could chew on them over and over in my head until Bandolero actually becomes a reality later this year.
Isabella’s line of tacos was a highlight, particularly the straight-forward skirt steak version, which was paired with refried beans. (His technically perfect interpretation of fish tacos would have been a highlight had the mahi mahi not smelled like the Maine Avenue fish market at high noon in August.)
My favorite of the night, though, might have been the most unexpected. It was a vegetarian empanada, with a flaky pie-doughlike pastry, wrapped around the perfect (read: not overstuffed) amount of Jack cheese, corn and potato filling, served on an pepper-heavy escabeche whose acidity and fattiness complemented and cut through the richness of the empanada.
In the end, the meal was just what you would expect from a restaurant-preview pop-up: It hinted a good things to come while showing that Isabella and team still have things to work out before opening day.