4/5 Stars

$$$

Bandolero, Spanish for bandit, is just what chef Mike Isabella has become in D.C., taking the city by storm and stealing the hearts and taste buds of the District’s many finicky foodies. His newest restaurant, Bandolero, serves up an authentic Mexican taste and highlights the kind of cooking that Isabella does best: big flavors in small portions.

Some chefs spend their entire careers without receiving the acclaim that Mike Isabella has generated in just three years. Ever since competing on season six of Bravo’s television hit “Top Chef” and later “Top Chef: All-Stars,” Isabella hasn’t slowed down and neither have his fans. His restaurants, including Bandolero, are always filled with Isabella enthusiasts, a few of whom asked for pictures with the chef himself during my visit.

This Mexican restaurant is Isabella’s second Washington property, following on the heels of his popular Italian restaurant, Graffiato. Bandolero has kept Washington foodies like me anxious for its opening ever since a June 2011 fire destroyed Hook, a popular seafood restaurant, and left prime M Street real estate vacant. Although the restaurant has been open for only a month, getting a good reservation is already extremely difficult, and the wait can be more than an hour. It is clear that Isabella’s cooking talent is no secret, and planning well ahead is a must if you want to experience the offerings from Bandolero’s kitchen.

Bandolero’s menu highlights tried-and-true Mexican favorites but with an upscale, modern twist. Don’t be doubtful of quality when your young waiter, rushing around in a hip black T-shirt, explains the size of the food. While the portions may be small, they still pack huge flavor and their size makes sampling the variety of dishes easy. As you would expect of any good Mexican restaurant, the meal started with guacamole crafted to velvety perfection and chips with a delectable crunch. Giving the traditional dish a modern feel, Bandolero dares to make a statement with presentation. Isabella does not make his guacamole tableside, unlike many Mexican restaurants, but this mysterious, behind-the-scenes preparation does not detract from its wonderful taste.

The next plates consisted of taquitos and tacos that will delightfully engage your palate with their far-from-classic Mexican flavors. My two favorites were the barbeque chicken tacos, which combine sweet barbeque chicken with rich plantains and bold poblano peppers, as well as fresh tuna ceviche taquitos, paired with creamy sweet potato and a little kick of heat from the ginger. The spices awaken your taste buds and leave them buzzing with the excitement of modern flavors and spice packed into the perfect bites. Saving the best for last, the meal concluded with scrumptious sopapillas for dessert. Cinnamon sugar coats these fried treats, which are then dipped in a luscious dulce de leche sauce.

Just like Isabella’s food, the restaurant’s “modern Mexican” claim resonates throughout the entire dining experience. Upon arrival, hostesses greet you and check your reservation on their iPads. It doesn’t get much more modern than that. The two-story restaurant booms with modern music and features a rustic, dark setting with bright red lights that pop against brick and burnt orange walls. The lower level houses a lively bar packed with people and an open kitchen, as well as a Day of the Dead twist on Isabella’s signature graffiti wall decor. On the upper level is a dining room with chandeliers and wrought iron fencing that blends the Mexican atmosphere with the perfect amount of modern flare.

Although the restaurant has a romantic setting, Bandolero may not be the right place for a first date. The menu can be pricey when you need to order at least three dishes per person to feel full, each of which is $10 or more. In addition, the restaurant’s acoustics foster an overly noisy space that is coupled with a bustling atmosphere as wait staff flit by, delivering many plates at a time. However, I recommend that you enjoy Bandolero’s fast-paced, trendy vibe with a few friends. The small portions should be shared to get the full range of flavors that the restaurant has to offer. After my experience at Bandolero, I can’t wait for the next installments of the Isabella series, a Greek concept restaurant and an Italian sandwich shop, hopefully hitting D.C. in early 2013.

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