Review by Lauren Chesire
I was ruthlessly mocked by my friends for being “the picky eater.” When they suggested we go to a local Mexican restaurant, my face instinctively scrunched up at the memory of a bad experience—complete with plates of bland, ground-beef-filled tortillas. Swayed by these unpleasant memories, I quickly blurted out, “I don’t like Mexican food.”
“You’ve never had real Mexican food,” my friend quipped back.
She was right, but that didn’t stop my natural aversion to it. Luckily, when I came to Iowa City, I was suddenly surrounded by amazing restaurants and decided it was finally time to embrace quality Mexican food. That’s how I found El Banditos.
El Banditos is a cozy little restaurant, nestled between a vintage store decorated by antique furniture and a print shop complete with posters hung in the window styled to look like they were printed back in the 70’s. The restaurant, clad in blue brick, almost seems as if it belongs to a different time than its neighbors. This striking appearance draws in its patrons. The entrance is marked by a small bar decorated with bottles and a large flat screen TV. The walls are a muted, sun-faded orange and little mosaic light fixtures hang from the ceiling, providing a warm glow. There’s a heavy motif of decorated skulls and vibrant flowers covering the walls. Large windows bring natural light in. While the Simon & Garfunkel radio on Pandora plays through the restaurant from the TV in the front, Spanish music wafts softly from a door to the kitchen in the back hall.
Be sure to try: Perez Family Taco and Scorpions (disclaimer: not real scorpions)
The menu focuses on providing variety within Mexican-style cuisine. The recipes are constantly evolving, with some originating from family recipes and others from the chefs who bring their own personal culinary experiences into the kitchen. As one of the more than 40 restaurants in the downtown area alone, the menu is ever-evolving to stay relevant. Owner Derek Perez explains this creative atmosphere at El Banditos.
“The tacos, enchiladas, and how our meat is prepared is all based off of family recipes,” Perez said. “But if someone new comes in and brings something that tastes better, we change it.”
El Banditos stands out from other Mexican restaurants by offering sides other than the obligatory rice and refried beans. A personal favorite of mine were the calabacitas: diced zucchini sautéed with spices. The cooked-down vegetable has a creamy texture and a complementing faint smoky flavor.
Another item on the menu that’s rich with complexity are the Scorpions. This appetizer includes the components of a jalapeño popper and whole shrimp, served with guacamole. The jalapeño and seasoning provide heat and are balanced by the mild flavors of the shrimp meat.
Owner Derek Perez explained that the varying dishes and degrees of heat featured on the menu come from the diversity of cuisine in Mexico itself. Depending on what region of Mexico — and its distance from the equator — the available ingredients and amount of spice change.
“People eat what they have accessible to them,” Perez said. “Our menu is a fusion of these different styles.”
The real star of the menu is the Perez family taco. Its name and recipe originated from the tacos Perez ate as a kid. Adapted from his grandma’s own technique, it’s a flour tortilla fried into a light, crispy shell. The lettuce and pico de gallo within the taco are made from local produce. The crunchy, thin shell and organic ingredients result in an amazingly fresh taco. Here’s a “secret menu” tip: any taco can be ordered with the Perez family taco shell. So if you can’t say no to carnitas or fish tacos (I’m talking to you, Dad), you can still have your favorite menu item without sacrificing their signature tortilla shell.
From the local produce to the ingredients made from scratch and the comprehensive menu, El Banditos is sure to win over anyone who has a lukewarm attitude towards Mexican cuisine. I no longer associate Mexican food with soggy refried beans, but with the complex flavors found at El Banditos.