Tacos make great bar food. And Banditos makes great tacos.
The Tex-Mex-themed bar and eatery, which opened in July in the Federal Hill space that formerly housed Taco Spot, gets a lot of things right — not just the tacos. With an extensive drinks menu, a short list of simple but appealing food, and chipper service, Banditos is a welcome addition to the busy, bar-friendly neighborhood.
The team behind Banditos includes Andrew Dunlap and Sean White, former owners of The Reserve and the disappointingly short-lived 1542 Gastropub. But while The Reserve and 1542 were more ambitious restaurant projects located on the edge of Federal Hill (Langermann's on Light recently opened in that space), Banditos is smaller, more focused on drinks than food, and right in the thick of the action.
We noticed the difference right away. For one thing, Banditos looked like a bar, not a gastropub. Black-and-red Mexican gangster-themed murals on the walls were a nod to the name, but big TVs and local sports teams' flags gave the place an unmistakable barroom feel.
As soon as we sat down, a super-friendly waitress brought us menus, launching into an extensive explanation of the many alcoholic beverages available. The Banditos drinks menu was an imposing, bound volume listing a bevy of tequilas, cocktails and craft beers in cans.
The food menu, on the other hand, was a single sheet of paper, listing a few basic snacks and traditional Tex-Mex meals, like tacos and burritos.
Queso dip ($7), with a swirl of rich meat at the bottom, was mild and creamy. Nothing at Banditos is very spicy; a variety of hot sauces on each table lets diners amp up the heat themselves.
On its own, the queso dip was standard. But the accompanying chips were something special. Dusted with warm Mexican spices and just a little sugar, the corn chips were an intriguing combination of savory and sweet. Paired with the velvety dip, the chips were terrific.
Bandito's entrees are simple — tacos, burritos, quesadillas — and most are available with chicken, fish, pork, steak or veggies, sourced locally when possible.
Spice blends, marinades and sauces, from a smoky salsa roja to creamy guacamole, are made in-house. That list of sauces isn't long — the same salsa, guacamole, and herbed sour cream dressed our chicken tacos ($9) and crispy pork burrito ($9).
In the burrito, the sauces blended together into one, and in some bites, the salsa's smoky elements overpowered the pork. That was a shame, since the meat was excellent. Eight to 10 hours of braising intensified the pork flavor, while a quick turn on a very hot stove gave the meat a pleasantly crispy texture. We found ourselves picking around the salsa to find less-drenched chunks of pork.
The chicken tacos were better balanced but just as flavorful. Three hefty tacos, already sprinkled with vegetables, cheese, and condiments, arrived on the heavy wooden board Banditos uses in lieu of plates. Like the pork, the chicken was braised then finished on the stove. The result was juicy, tender, earthy and filling.
Our waitress — who was prompt throughout the meal — suggested the Margarita Verde ($11), a cucumber-infused take on the traditional margarita. The cucumber balanced the lime's acidity, making the cocktail very drinkable and a fresh match for the savory food.
Mama's Little Yella Pils (on special for $2.50) was a less successful pairing; not all craft beers are made for Mexican food. For the next round, we switched to Tecate ($4). It's no beer snob's favorite, but the light Mexican beer was a more agreeable match for the food.
As we ate, we spied on the young and boisterous crew sitting at the bar. It was a rainy Tuesday night and the bar stools were filled, but the crowd spread out to only a few tables. According to Dunlap, over the next few months, Banditos will add arcade games to the mix; since our visit, Skee-Ball has already been set up.
Games will make the place more fun and give bar-hoppers another reason to visit. But we're not sure they're necessary. Those tacos alone should be enough to draw a crowd.
Back story: Last July, the team behind The Reserve and the short-lived 1542 Gastropub opened Banditos on a highly trafficked section of Charles Street in Federal Hill. Banditos boasts an impressive tequila list and drinks menu, bolstered by carefully executed takes on traditional Tex-Mex dishes.
Parking: Street parking and a garage at 40 E. West St
Signature dish: Savory and slightly spicy tacos stuffed with tender braised chicken are a great match for Banditos' Margarita Verde, a refreshing, cucumber-infused take on the traditional Mexican cocktail.
Where: 1118 S. Charles St., Baltimore
Contact: 443-835-1517; banditostnt.com
Open: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not usually accepted, but large parties can call in advance to reserve space
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun