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Bandolero Brings Margaritas on Tap to Georgetown

Until Mike Isabella’s Bandolero opened its doors last week, the Georgetown dining scene was seriously lacking a mid-priced, celeb chef hangout where both cocktails and food take center stage. With a menu of classic Mexican dishes and a mixology-driven beverage program helmed by Sam Babcock, Bandolero is already filling the role of neighborhood eatery that trades on both trend and taste.

Isabella fans have had a few chances to preview Bandolero. We first wrote about one of its signature cocktails, the City of Gold, in a preview of the Sugar & Champange Affair. Subsequently, Isabella and team set up a five-course, cocktail-paired pop-up restaurant in Living Social’s 918 F Street event space and took over the Tackle Box space in Cleveland Park at the end of April. Bandolero, it seems, has pulled off the most well-rehearsed restaurant opening in D.C.

Conceived with a Day of the Dead theme, Bandolero’s got a cops-and-robbers vibe reflected in everything from the neo-graffitied exposed brick walls and jail-like metal fencework to the cocktails themselves. The Jesus Malverde (a character known in Mexican folklore as the “generous bandit,” or, not unlike Robin Hood, a saint among thieves) pairs Vida mezcal with fresh cucumber and lime juices, agave nectar and cilantro with hellfire bitters made locally by bartender extraordinaire (and Think Food Group beverage director) Owen Thomsen. “This is a great intro to mezcal,” says Babcock, who notes that the smokiness of the liquor is tempered by the cooling cucumber and notes of the twice-strained cilantro.

Mike Isabella first turned heads by offering Prosecco on tap at his first solo venture, Graffiato. It’s available here too, alongside another unique tap offering: the El Bandolero house margarita. Made in batches of about 100 at a time, Babcock and his bar team fill five-gallon Cornelius kegs — used for bar soda during the 1970s and 80s before it was delivered in bags — with Epsolon reposado tequila, Patron Citronage, fresh lime juice and blood orange puree. The keg is then tapped with nitrogen to keep the liquid flat and, before it’s served, Babcock adds a splash of Grand Marnier on top. It’s a rather genius way to prepare margs en masse without resorting to Babcock’s most highly loathed ingredient: sour mix.

The sticky sweet stuff  is something else he took pains to avoid in the El Mata Amigos, Bandolero’s seasonally flavored frozen margarita. “It took me a while to figure out how to do it all with fresh ingredients,” says Babcock, who finally settled on a recipe that calls for just two quarts of simple syrup in a five-gallon batch, which is otherwise composed of reposado tequila, fresh lime juice and orange liqueur in addition to the flavor of the week. Right now, it’s prickly pear — this version uses fresh prickly pear purée — but Babcock expects to change up flavors regularly according to the season. When asked if it’d still be available come winter, he replied: “It’s a frozen margarita — of course!”

Photos by Lance Hayden: Mike Isabella with fellow Top Chef winner Jennifer Carroll; Sam Babcock

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