This is not a formal review, but rather an off-the-cuff first-impressions-style riff on a brand-spankin’ new D.C. restaurant

It was one the hottest tickets in town: Graffiato owner and Top Chef alum Mike Isabella‘s pop-up preview of his forthcoming Mexican concept, Bandolero, at the new Living Social headquarters in Penn Quarter. The series of five-course dinners, taking place over four nights and priced at $119 per person, sold out in just eight hours. Y&H was lucky enough to snag a seat during the Friday night session.

Initial impressions: Maybe my favorite bite of the night was one of the first things I tried—-Isabella’s deliciously rich sopes with lamb picadillo and chipotle goat cheese. Give me a whole platter of these meaty bite-sized hockey pucks and a bottle of Rioja (or two) and I’m set for the evening. A champion of small plates, however, Isabella doesn’t let us off that easy. An onslaught of other dishes ensued, with mixed results. I also enjoyed the tiny taquitos with crab, coconut and lime, though I can’t say the same for the spicy pork meatballs which lacked much spice.

On to the tacos: the “fish stick”-style mahi mahi, breaded with crumbled tortilla chips, were another winner. And, I greatly appreciated the rareness of the skirt steak. In my experience, most taquerias tend to serve beef more medium to well-done. Call me out for carnivorous bias, but I found the charred asparagus with beet salsa a little blasé. Ditto the vegetarian tamal with wild mushrooms, though the presentation was quite pretty. The biggest disappointment had to be the mole pork ribs, which looked gorgeous in a glistening glaze, sprinkled with sesame seeds. The racks arrived at just the right fall-off-the-bone tenderness, but the sauce tasted a tad sour and funky to me. The zesty chicken enchilada seemed the better of the two chocolate-laced dishes. And the hanger steak with chimichurri didn’t suck, either.

Each course came with a cocktail pairing and I will happily endorse the smoky malverde, with mezcal, cucumber, cilantro, agave and hellfire bitters, over the michelada or margarita. But, with weeks, possibly months, still to go before Bandolero finally opens for business, who knows which of these dishes and drinks will make the final menu. Whatever you decide, Mike, please don’t lose the sopes.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery