Gut Reaction for Sept. 6, 2012

For Weekly SurgeSeptember 4, 2012 

Setting the Table

I’ve visited Bandito’s Restaurant & Cantina twice since it opened in early August, and both times I’ve taken pleasure in noticing a deft touch in creating a unique and thoroughly appealing ambiance.

First on the customer appreciation list is the sweeping ocean view that can be seen from any seat, whether that seat is inside, out on the covered terrace, under umbrella-topped tables on the deck or down on a sandy area around a bandstand where musicians perform all day, every day.

The building’s design by Pegram Associates of Myrtle Beach is also impressive, with its ceiling soaring into a dome, plenty of beautiful ceramic tiles and interior columns with a mother of pearl effect. It evokes a feeling of small Mexican town square combined with coastal Caribbean resort so you feel you’re dining in a posh restaurant with laid-back sensibilities.

Furnishings help toward the comfy/casual feeling. Wood tables and chairs were stained to give a vintage look, and there is a mix of shapes and sizes in the seating, from conventional roomy booths to a cool round booth and tables big enough to seat 8-10 hungry personas.

On our second visit the hostess led us to a round table by the oceanfront windows, and we were confused at first because they looked a little like those old wooden utility spools that first-time apartment dwellers often turned into tables. But then she pulled on a handle and, voila, our seats that were part of the round unit were revealed.

Down the Hatch

I’ve tried five appetizers, one salad, two entrees and two desserts, and each was delightfully delicious. Executive chef and general manager, Sean Christenson, is serving what he promised when he said in February that he planned for the menu to have a strong Mexican flavor with Latin-influenced cuisines from South America, The Caribbean and more.

Appetizers are $2.50-$12 and abound with fresh flavors. My favorite so far is Mexican Street Corn for $3.50, where a whole ear is presented steaming hot and flavored with chipotle aioli, cotija cheese, chili, cilantro and fresh lime. The crunchy sweetness of the corn with the creaminess of the cheese and aioli is symphonic.

We also tried the Guacamole, which is creamy and subtly flavored, and applaud the guacamole’s supporting role in the house-made Salsa Verde, which is made fresh several times per day because it’s so popular. Jalapeno Crab and Spinach Dip is amazing and luxurious with big chunks of crab meat, and Black Bean Hummus served with Jalapeno Corn Cakes and marinated veggies is a fabulous creation.

But the best appetizer, in my and my son’s opinions, is Grouper Wings, which of course aren’t actually wings but are the tender part of the fish by the front fins. They’re served bone-in, and the idea is to pull off moist morsels, place them in a hot tortilla with salsa and devour. The chef showed me the fried fins are also tasty; pull one off and try a nibble.

My husband wants to try the Desafio de Ala Piquantes Estupidos, which translates to stupidly hot wings, while I have my eye on Firecracker Shrimp Tostada with pineapple salsa.

There is a house salad for $5, and several entrée salads are $8-$10, with the addition of protein another $4-$7. We enjoyed the Mexican “Cobb” with Romaine, chopped egg, candied bacon, pico de gallo, avocado slices, pickled onion, shredded Cheddar and a generous wedge of high-quality buttermilk blue cheese.

Chef Christenson brought many customers to Nacho Hippo at The Market Common when he introduced internationally flavored tacos, and he continues that theme at Bandito’s with $3-$5 choices such as Chimichurri marinated steak, fresh local fish, pulled pork, shrimp, or chorizo and Pepper Jack potatoes.

We haven’t yet attempted the sandwich choices, but plan to. For $10-$15, they come with fries and include Quesadillas, The Banditos Cuban, Pulled Pork Torta, Vegan Guadalajara, and the house-made Chorizo Burger.

We had some of that chorizo on the house signature entrée called Grilled Argentine Gaucho Platter, where for $23 you get marinated sirloin steak, chicken, pork tenderloin, and smoked roasted vegetables over Pepper Jack potatoes. Two big spicy chorizo slices were the crowning touch, and it is more like Spanish chorizo, the chef said, which is more similar to cured salami than Mexican chorizo, which resembles Jimmy Dean sausage and is often crumbled and put into recipes.

The other entrée we tried was Mole Bandito con Pollo ($17), which was the best mole I’ve ever had (my second-favorite is at La Poblanita in Myrtle Beach). The rich and smooth cocoa-infused mole drenched a chicken leg and thigh sprinkled with sesame seeds and placed atop a bed of Mexican rice. On the side were caramelized plantain slices, which I picked up and ate with my fingers. I also picked up that chicken leg and enjoyed it, then licked my fingers.

A few more entrees ($12-$25) include Tamales, Enchiladas, Burritos, Fajitas, Chimichangas, Simply Grilled Fresh Fish (the server can tell you the boat it was caught on), Pepino Crusted Grouper and Mojarra Platija, which is a whole fried local flounder.

There isn’t a set dessert menu – they change – but we were lucky to hit a day when there was fresh peach ice cream made with sour cream and cinnamon; and Churros (think doughnuts in stick form) with chocolate dipping sauce.

Check, please

Then there’s the booze, which pours aplenty. All the wines are from Spain, Argentina, Chile and Portugal, and the bar stocks more than 100 varieties of tequila. Specialty cocktails we tried and enjoyed include the Arnold Palmerita (sweet tea, lemonade, sweet tea vodka, tequila and house-made sweet and sour mix), the Skinny Margarita, which has only 130 calories (it’s made with Splenda instead of simple syrup), and El Diablo, a super-spicy combination of Margarita and Bloody Mary that will send any hangover hightailing in terror.

Bandito’s also has beer hoppers, which look like portable drink dispensers with metal rods in the middles that holds ice. They can be ordered with four or eight glasses’ worth in them, and they save you about a $1 per draft.

For young muchachas and muchachos, a $6 children’s menu offers entrée choices of Beef Taco, Fried Shrimp, Nachos, Cheese Quesadilla or Chicken Tenders, and includes fries. Soon a city children’s park adjacent to Bandito’s and featuring the artistry of Peter Nein will be completed.

Bandito’s Restaurant & Cantina is at 1410 N. Ocean Blvd. in Myrtle Beach, and the number is (843) 808-9800. It opens at 11 a.m. daily and stays open until late night. Parking is free for restaurant customers.

Holy Mole: Bandito’s Glorifies Mexican Cuisine

Becky Billingsley serves daily helpings of fresh restaurant news at MyrtleBeachRestaurantNews.com.

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