Banditos has been hawking tacos and tequila in Federal Hill since 2012. While we recognize both of those as dietary staples, Banditos didn’t seem to distinguish itself from the rest of the drunk-eating offerings that fill Federal Hill, and it wasn’t enough of a draw to persuade us to fight for parking to visit. But when news came last fall that chef Cyrus Keefer, previously of Fork & Wrench and Birroteca, was revamping Banditos’ menu, we hurried down there with high hopes for high-quality food.
Our expectations were exceeded on that visit and a subsequent one, and for a brief moment we thought Banditos had found a way to stand out from the crowd. But a few months later, Keefer left, and we were stunned by the vast fluctuation in menus and food quality.
During our first visit to Banditos in November, Keefer was serving a menu of weekly rotating small plates. The star of the plates we sampled was the steak tartare taco ($5). Fresh herbs and a richly flavored vinaigrette with cumin, garlic, grilled cactus, and serrano chili were mixed with the perfectly plated tartare alongside tiny taco shells and a soft-boiled egg with a brilliantly yellow yolk. The textural components of the crunchy shells, the soft egg, and the firm, cold diced beef mingled elegantly, while the yolk of the egg moderately mellowed the intense flavors of the vinaigrette and herbs in the beef.
On a second visit in December, we dove into what was now the regular menu. Tacos took center stage with 12 varieties ($9 to $12) and ingredients like tempura mushrooms and "angry shrimp," as well as standards like steak, chicken, and fish. Several varieties of wings also appeared on the menu—but these were several steps above your usual sauce-laden buffalo wings: They were brined, then slow-cooked sous-vide style before a quick fry upon order. The Allbird variety ($10) had Asian flavors of soy and sesame and came with a creamy white dipping sauce of scallions, sesame, and cream cheese. Although we were first skeptical of the sauce, the flavor combinations proved to be a pleasant surprise, and the wings themselves were large with crispy skin and juicy, tender meat.
Every dish we ordered was impeccably prepared. Keefer, through artful infusion of Asian flavors and thoughtful preparation, elevated simple basics but kept the cuisine casual. The drinks, too, were impressive. The house-made sangria was a unique blend of port wine, roasted rinds of grapefruit, mezcal, pineapple, Thai basil, apples, ginger, star anise-infused simple syrup, and a red blend wine, and the jalapeño margaritas ($11) were light and refreshing (made with fresh ingredients in house, rather than from a mix) with a pleasant heat on the end.
On both visits, the restaurant seemed busy, and service was friendly and quick. By this time, too, the restaurant had installed a new late-night taco window and started up Sunday brunch.
Not a month later, we learned that Keefer left Banditos and Dave Trivette took over, and the menu changed again. This menu, with an eye toward feeding hungry throngs of Fed Hill imbibers, departed deeply from what we had seen previously.
We popped in on a Friday afternoon in February at 5 p.m. expecting the spot to be full of happy-hour drinkers and diners. We were shocked to find it empty.
We settled in at the bar and ordered the delicious jalapeño margarita, to which the bartender responded, "OK . . . I need to go get the ingredients." Why were the ingredients not in the bar? The place had opened at 4, and it was a Friday, after all.
Steak tacos ($12) were the success of the meal, cooked perfectly to order (we chose medium rare) with flour tortillas that were pillowy and sporting grill marks. The diced tomatoes and cilantro were fresh, but we weren't enthusiastic about the "queso sauce" that looked like thick sour cream and was nearly tasteless.
The remainder of the meal was disappointing. The fried pickles ($8) were clearly cooked in fryer oil that wasn't at the proper temperature: The outside appeared crispy, but with one bite the batter gave in to the moist inside that hadn't finished cooking. The pickles were flaccid, and with the batter removed the translucence of parts of the spears indicated that they were not fresh. The fries suffered, too, from the oil temperature, with a deep brown overcooked appearance and a mushy interior.
Tequila honey wings ($10) bore no resemblance to the crispy, flavorful wings we'd once had. These were shiny and greasy with little taste. The accompanying sauce looked more like a thick spread than a dip and had an odd tang paired with overwhelming heat.
With little to no cheese, save for a few congealed pieces, the bacon macaroni and cheese ($8) boasted only that the noodles were al dente. Bacon was unevenly cooked with some flabby pieces and others that were downright burnt. What really puzzled us, though, was the enormous blob of sour cream thrown on top. After trying the woefully cheeseless mac on its own, we thought maybe we were intended to mix in the sour cream, but that only resulted in large unpleasant chunks of dairy that ended our attempts to eat the dish.
The crab cake sandwich ($14) had, pleasantly, little filler, but with only backfin meat, dotted with green onion, the cake was bland and clearly overcooked on the flat top. What was advertised on the menu as being brioche was a cheap hamburger bun instead, unforgivably burnt to black on both internal sides.
On a previous visit during Keefer's time in the kitchen, co-owner Andrew Dunlap had told us, "There's a misconception that we're all bars down here. But people are starting to realize food."
The newest iteration of Banditos doesn't align with Dunlap's expressed realization. Keefer's menu proved that inexpensive food needn't be cheap, but it appears that the restaurant is hoping to rest on its laurels by appealing to drunk bar hoppers. It's entirely possible that the sheer lack of attention to detail on our visit was a weird fluke, but even if the kitchen had taken more care in preparing the dishes, the menu's offerings still lack the innovative flavor combinations that it had only months before.
Drunk or not, there are few diners who are going to be willing to pay for what Banditos is putting out now—after all, there is plenty of cheap food in Federal Hill that isn't cheap in quality.