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Desert Companion

At First Bite: Accent Marks the Spot

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Octopus
Photography by Sabin Orr

Fried octopus small plate

Bandito’s lively food and vibrant atmosphere are novel — but much more than a mere novelty

It’s hard to miss the gleaming architecture of Bandito Latin Kitchen & Cantina along East Flamingo. With a tall, vaulted ceiling and window-filled walls wrapped in horizontal brise-soleil screens, it’s a completely different aesthetic than the stucco and wrought iron commonly featured in restaurants serving south-of-the-border dishes. The cuisine is just as visually striking. There’s not a shred of iceberg lettuce, sliced black olives, or bland cheddar in this Mexican-inspired eatery. Instead, get ready to dine on ingredients such as octopus, Romanesco cauliflower, and blood oranges.

Opened in early summer, Bandito is the creation of local entrepreneur Kent Harman. He was the longtime director of operations at the city’s original upscale Latin American eatery, Border Grill at Mandalay Bay. Executive Chef Chris Kight helms the kitchen; his pedigree includes cooking under not only Gordon Ramsay in London, but Thomas Keller in Napa Valley, too. It’s easy to detect the influence of these master chefs in this new dining destination, but that influence doesn’t feel borrowed or derivative. Harman and Kight’s dishes, rather, are more of a relaxed reinterpretation of techniques. And yet, there’s nothing precious going on here — there are burritos, after all.

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Burritos, in fact, are a perfect introduction to the approachable lunch menu (they’re not served at dinner). Substantial but not overloaded, they’re available with a variety of meats — chicken tinga, pork carnitas and al pastor, beef carne asada, and sautéed shrimp. The fillings also include black bean purée, charro beans, achiote rice, and a blend of cheeses. They’re topped with a choice of house sauces. On my first visit, I asked for a half-and-half combo of creamed salsa verde in one end and pasilla-pepita on the other for a double taste. The former was smooth and lemony; the latter, nutty from the pumpkin seeds. My al pastor selection had a distinct, pineapple-tinged tropical zing. The burrito arrived  with a dollop of fresh guacamole and an additional side of elotes, or Mexican street corn. This grilled preparation of maize is a current darling of the dining scene, street to table. This version is off-the-cob and luxurious with crema and spices.

Taco plates, made with housemade corn tortillas, expand upon the burrito tableau with added choices of fish (deep fried or grilled), beef barbacoa, and braised octopus. The fresh fish edition is a standout. There’s also a trio of tortas — steak, turkey-chorizo albondigas (meatballs), and roasted veggies with chipotle.

Bandito Ceviche

Ceviche.  Photography by Sabin Orr

Bandito’s starter menu, served during both lunch and dinner, is impressive if not expansive. There are the familiar appetizers, such as a well-prepared and prodigious guacamole, a spicy “Queso Bandito” dip, chicken quesadillas, nachos, and tamales. There are also more ambitious offerings. In a such a colorful restaurant, the turkey-chorizo albondigas in creamed salsa verde and cotija is one of the more muted items, at least in terms of hue, but they have a piquant tang. But the real showstoppers are the ceviche and the fried octopus small plates. The ceviche is one of the best in town, vibrant and even playful, with diced scallops, shrimp, octopus, and whitefish citrus-cured with English cucumbers, red onions, watermelon radishes, and jalapeños. Even more striking is the octopus presentation, which mixes crisp-crusted octopus with charred cauliflower florets and bell pepper strips atop smoky red salsa. For light dishes, a trio of salads are available, including arugula with chicharrones, rainbow baby carrots, roasted corn, tomatoes, queso fresco, and agave-guajillo vinaigrette.

Brick-pressed roasted chicken

Brick-pressed roasted chicken. Photography by Sabin Orr

The dinner menu expands into a selection of entrées. For the most interactive choice, the “La Plancha” is Bandito’s interpretation of fajitas on overdrive. Piping-hot chicken, carnitas, al pastor, carne asada or shrimp is served with all the fixings: tortillas, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, purple cauliflower, pico de gallo, guacamole, charred jalapeños, and lime crema. A New York strip comes with street corn and potatoes al pastor. For seafood, there are daily catches, as well as shrimp tossed in incendiary habanero pepper sauce. Unique, however, is the understated but delicious brick-pressed roasted chicken. Tender breast meat is served in an elegant guajillo-thyme jus with a prodigious side of potatoes, pickled fennel, and more of the multi-colored cauliflower. It’s not Mexican in the beans-and-rice Sonoran-Chihuahuan sense at all; rather, it’s more indicative of the refined cooking of modern Mexico City.

The dessert list is slim, but has a couple of noteworthy items designed by star pastry chef Megan Romano. To wit, fork into a chocolate brownie tower with layers of dulce de leche mousse. The house pineapple upside-down cake gets a nice Mesoamerican twist with a bit of polenta in the batter.

The bar program is expansive. As the uniting tentpole of the dining room, as well as the adjacent Strip-facing patio, it’s where a spectrum of house margaritas are poured, like the emerald Cenote Verde with Chartreuse and green tomato shooter; the rosy Sandia with watermelon flavors; and the dusky Smoking Bandito with a spicy adobada-infused tequila añejo. Another must-try is the El Cazo cocktail. It’s zippy, with Mt. Gay Rum, Cointreau, fresh grapefruit juice, and soda water.

In my multiple visits, only a few minor quibbles arose. A jalapeño-cheese tamale was a tad dry and needed a good dose of salsa. A couple of taco tortillas could have used a few more blistering seconds on the open kitchen’s griddle. An order of fried octopus could have used fewer seconds in hot oil. Nothing majorly wrong, though. Bandito isn’t serving revelatory food, but it’s fun to look at and a pleasure to eat — a happy antidote to typical strip-mall Latin fare.

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