The squeeze bottle at Bandit Taco looks like something you’d see on the sidelines of a Redskins game. Tall, round and mustard-yellow, the bottle is the kind of container that should be filled with water, pickle brine, Booty Sweat or whatever it is that athletes drink these days.
This foot-long canister, however, contains salsa. A strip of blue tape affixed to the bottle reads “very hot!,” providing only a warning but no actual information as to what’s inside. I’d soon learn that the hot sauce, made in-house by chef Mauricio Flores Turcios, is a volatile compound, an alchemy of garlic, vinegar, paprika, molasses and charred peppers, including habaneros and arbol chiles. This is a salsa that doesn’t want to alienate you with heat, but convince you that super-hot peppers, when properly balanced, can accentuate a dish as much as citrus or salt or some other more palate-friendly ingredient.
Take, for instance, the carnitas at this U Street corridor taqueria: The kitchen has a two-step process for preparing the pork, resulting in a filling at once concentrated and succulent. It’s pork to the power of 10. When dropped into corn tortillas, the carnitas come topped with radish, scallions and cilantro. The taco is complete on its own, but when drizzled with Flores Turcios’s hot salsa, the bite assumes a new identity, one that channels the Carolinas, at least the areas that love vinegar and spice.
Bandit Taco is my favorite among the latest crop of taquerias to sprout in the area, including Cortez in Shaw and Tacos, Tortas & Tequila in Silver Spring. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that Bandit comes from four veterans of the D.C. dining scene: not just Flores Turcios, a cook with Salvadoran roots who worked for years with restaurateur Richard Sandoval, but also men with considerable management experience at places such as Sette Osteria and Cafe Milano. None of the Bandit owners are Mexican by birth or ancestry, but they have something almost as important: the drive of first-time restaurateurs looking to impress. Bandit is also self-financed, so the stakes are arguably higher for the partners.
Opened in February, Bandit has the breezy temperament of a fast-casual, with its cheery counter service and its customizable menu that lets you pick your protein vehicle: a taco featuring two corn tortillas, a burrito packed with rice and beans, a burrito bowl minus the magically stretchy flour tortilla or a griddled quesadilla. There’s no alcoholhere, but the small dining area, with sunlight that pours in from the fishbowl-like picture windows, may lift your spirits without the aid of a single cerveza.
“We don’t try to be 100 percent Mexican, because it’s very hard. You have to adapt to all the different backgrounds of people that we have here” in Washington, says Jorge Lobo Winners, one of the owners of Bandit Taco. Lobo Winners is a perfect example: He’s part Italian, part Bolivian.
If anything separates Washington’s taquerias from those in, say, Los Angeles or Houston, it’s this air of aspiration, as if our taco shops feel the need to cater to every Ivy League palate that traipses through town. Too often our taquerias don’t have dirt under their nails. They don’t feature large stainless steel pots with pork slowly simmering in its own lard. They don’t sell pork skin or pig-ear tacos. They mostly specialize in a kind of controlled refinement of the Mexican street-food experience.
These were some of the thoughts that I entertained while perched atop Cortez (1905 Ninth St. NW, 202-299-0381, cortezbar
dc.com), a fashionable taqueria carved out of the former space of the restaurant 1905. The view from the rooftop bar is spectacular at sunset: As you peer past the succulents in their flower boxes, you can breathe in the full spectrum of colors in Shaw, which are lost at ground level. The rooftop bar is the D.C. equivalent of a Cancun beach: With this kind of view, you’ll choke down anything and call it special.
Cortez has a tight menu of tacos, a few of which might have qualified as hits if the kitchen had (a) sourced better tortillas and (b) bothered to griddle the tortillas, which tasted like barely warmed masa. That said, both the skirt steak and chicken tinga tacos provide evidence that the kitchen knows how to doctor up proteins, even if the crew often garnishes those meats with shredded romaine, an unorthodox choice of lettuce.
Bandit Taco doesn’t make its own tortillas, either, but the shop’s rounds — warm, fragrant and fresh enough not to detract from the fillings — are superior to those at Cortez. Bandit’s team also understands the natural beauty of a well-dressed taco: Rather than throw a coin or two of fresh-cut radish on your tray, the crew juliennes the root vegetable and sprinkles the taco with the colorful matchsticks, along with cilantro and scallions. These tacos are ready for their close-up.
If the carnitas are king at Bandit, then the skirt steak is the heir apparent. The kitchen uses ají panca paste in the marinade to inject a taste of Peru into the Mexican preparation. It makes for beef with an exceptional depth of flavor. I’m hard pressed to think of a local taqueria that makes better carnitas or skirt steak tacos. Bandit’s juicy chicken adobo, which packs more heat than many, ranks right up there, too.
At this point, I’ve sampled just about every filling at Bandit Taco, save for the crispy shrimp. The only one I can’t recommend is the fried tofu, two cubes of which are swaddled in warmed tortillas along with a vegetable salsa. The taco spills its guts all over the place on first bite. It quickly becomes a tofu salad. Same goes for the wild mushroom taco, a beautiful bite that explodes like a piñata when you sink your teeth into it. Somehow, I could forgive this with the mushroom preparation. Perhaps because I slathered it in that amazing salsa — the one labeled “very hot!”
1946 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 202-609-8127, bandittacodc.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo, with a 0.4-mile walk to the taqueria.
Prices: $3 to $6 for sides; $3.50 to $9 for tacos, burritos, bowls and quesadillas.