All the beans and none of the meat at Bandidas Taqueria
Meat. The word sounds good rolling off of my tongue; clearly I'm as carnivorous as they come. So why then would I be interested in a hippy vegetarian joint on Commercial Drive?
Because it's flavorful, it's fresh, and it's messy. Bandidas Taqueria offers vegetarian-inspired Mexican food with primarily local, seasonal ingredients that satisfy you even if you constantly have meat on your mind.
While it's obvious that the restaurant doesn't have a fountain of cash in the backyard, the "make do with what you have", mis-matched look works for them, creating a casual and quirky vibe.
The patches on the wall make them look ghetto, the checker floors make them look retro, the plants in jars make them look bohemian, the artwork makes them look hipster, and the antique lights make them look cultured. Oh, and the random Mexican motifs? They fit the cuisine I suppose.
There food is as much of a mish-mash of flavours as their decor is, and it works. The reason it works it's because the flavours they combine complement each other so well visually, texturally and most importantly edibly.
Having been by Bandidas many time, but never actually going inside, this past Wednesday I decided it was time. Knowing that there was an ample amount of bike parking in front of the restaurant I rode my bike over and parked my bike where I could see it from my window table. Considering the fact that it was mid-week and 2PM, I was surprised to discover that it was packed inside. Do none of these people work? Surely they can't all be taking there lunch break now. Before I went I was warned to make a reservation and I'm glad that I did because my patience is short.
By the time I had ordered and the food had arrived, half of the restaurant had cleared out and it was quiet, with just the bustling of the kitchen staff and the obnoxious guy talking with his mouth full behind me.
Here's what I ate:
HOUSE SALAD (side)
Romaine lettuce, purple cabbage, cilantro, avocado, feta cheese, pumpkin seeds, and fresh salsa with house balsamic vinaigrette.
This is a pretty impressive side salad if you ask me. With bright green avocado slices resting atop shredded romaine lettuce and bright purple cabbage the salad shouts "eat me I'm healthy". While on their own the three ingredients wouldn't have brought much wow to the table, it was the house balsamic vinaigrette and the excessive sprinkling of pumpkin seeds that made the salad so tasty. With a hint of sweet but tart flavour from the dressing, combined with the smoky essence and crunch from the seeds, this salad is a great addition to a meal and is a nice break from the "greens" that restaurants usually serve as a side.
Note: The feta cheese was subtle, at least in my serving.
Would I order it again? As a side, but not as a main dish.
Roasted tomatoes in a rich vegetable stock, blended smooth and topped with avocado, tortilla chips, cilantro, feta cheese, and lime.
While traditional Mexican soups have chicken, this one is simply a tomato soup, with "Mexican toppings". It is rich and smooth as they claim it to be, but it's missing that smoky chipotle flavour with kick that you'd get in true Mexican cuisine. According to co-owner Jackie, the dish is very different in the summer than it is in the winter, to the point that the current line cook isn't happy with it at the moment. The different taste makes sense, because in the summer tomatoes can be sourced locally, while in the winter they have to import them. Oh, what a difference it makes to eat locally!
The soup was garnished with bright green avocado, a good amount of feta cheese, cilantro and house-made tortilla chips. Like the other dishes it looked beautiful.
Would I order it again? Probably not as I'd rather save my appetite for the entrees.
For my main I got the mix and match tacos. It was a hard decision between the baked burritos, poblanos and the tacos, but in the end it was the sampling of different tacos that won. All entrees come with your choice of Mexican rice and beans or the aforementioned House Salad.
Ground walnuts, apple salsa, cheese & roasted red pepper sauce with purple cabbage, pinto beans, and sour cream.
This was my favorite taco. I substituted the mozzarella cheese for goat's cheese, and am very glad that I did. I don't think that the mozzarella would make this dish as delicious, unable to complement the other flavours as the goat cheese does. The creamy consistency, with the crisp, semi-tart apples and the nutty, earthy influence from the walnuts all worked so well together, especially with the savoury pinto beans added to the mix. The roasted red pepper sauce and sour cream, upped the creaminess of the dish that much more making every bite delicious and messy.
Would I order it again? Definitely.
Spinach, butternut squash, roasted salsa, pinto beans, cheese, & sour cream.
There was a lot less going on in this taco then the other two but I appreciated it for what it was anyway. The spinach was a nice change from the purple cabbage as it let the other flavors shine through, including the roasted salsa and the sour cream.
Would I order it again? Maybe. I liked it, but I'd probably try a new one.
RONNY RUSSELL taco
Roasted yams and onions, fresh guacamole, black beans, green salsa, purple cabbage & toasted pumpkin seeds.
I'm not surprised that this taco is one of the most popular tacos on the menu. The sweet, soft yams combined with the toasted pumpkin seeds were a great duo and stole the show. The green salsa is mild so I tried this taco with a touch of their spicy salsa and loved it even more.
Note: You have to ask for the hot salsa and they'll bring it out in a little jar for you, warning you that it's hot and to use it to your discretion.
Would I order it again? Yes, but maybe in a baked burrito. I'm curious as to how the pumpkin seeds and cabbage would hold up.
Next time I'm in the restaurant I'm trying the Sherman's Benny, the stuffed mushrooms, the Baby Dee, the Poblano Sophie's, Dave's enchilada and maybe a dessert. With a friend of course!
To accompany my meal I had Saltspring coffee ($2.50 with free refills) and a Hibiscus Vodka Lemonade served in a mason jar ($5). My coffee was frequently topped up, so kudos to them for great service, and the cocktail was crisp, refreshing and delicious. Deadly though, as I could see myself drinking ten of them.
This is the alcoholic version of a drink you can find in California called agua de jamaica (pronounced hah-MY-kah), which is an infusion of dried red hibiscus flowers, sugar, and lemon. While at Bandidas they don't make their own lemonade (it's surprisingly Minute Maid), they do make their own hibiscus tea.
I loved the fact that they carry local beer and wine at the restaurant. With only two taps in the restaurant (currently pouring R&B), they are limited to some of the craft beers that they can have, but still sell bottles of Cannery, Howe Sound, Red Racer, Tree Brewing and Big Rock. Parallel 49 will be the next beer on tap. Wines include, but aren't limited to, Mission Hill, NK MIP, Jackson Triggs, Kalala and Copper Moon.
Another great thing about this restaurant is they will cater to your dietary restrictions. Can't eat dairy? They have Daiya "cheese" as a substitution for cheese. Additionally, all menu items can be made vegan, if they aren’t already. They even culture their own vegan sour cream.
Owners Jackie Rae Avery and Aiyana Kane built and created the restaurant with the help of their friends and family. With little to no business experience (they both were teachers), they started up the restaurant based on a passion for food, sustainability and community. They have paid tribute to their family members, friends and staff members who have helped them along the way by naming some of the dishes after them. For example, the ever-so popular Ronny Russell draws the first name from Jackie's grandpa, and the last name from Aiyana's grandpa.
Although running in to some issues along the way, mainly financial, they have been going strong for over four years now, and have played a huge part in the lives of many locals. Being on the south side of Commercial Drive, local businesses don't have the abundance of restaurants to grab food within their half hour or so allotted lunch, so Bandidas provides that healthy, affordable lunch they desire.
Another complication that arose, particularly for Jackie, was letting go of her control freak instincts and delegating tasks to hired staff. Aiyana's mom runs her own business and was able to give them some sound advice, "hire the best - hire only people that are better than you". And that's just what they did.
They also received great support from some customers that were there in the very beginning. One woman in particular would come in every day, sending food back if it was a little bit cold or too bland.
"It was frustrating at the time, but in retrospect, I'm so thankful for her. I tend to make things bland at home, with little butter, oil or salt, so she pointed that out to us when it was obvious in our dishes. Since Aiyana and I made the entire menu together, it reflected how we felt things should taste at first...Aiyana is a fantastic cook though."
The two, beautiful ladies, run Bandidas as sustainably as possible in keeping with their core values. They contribute their compost to local, community gardens, use compostable packaging, give take out coffees only in a personal mug, and run a car-free business. If you ever see a bike zipping down commercial drive hauling a blue cargo trailer, it'll probably be Aiyana or Jackie trucking goods back to the restaurant.
Open daily for brunch and dinner, Bandidas Taqueria is a restaurant worth checking out. Not only will you enjoy the food and get your daily dose of veggies, you’ll be supporting a sustainably run, local business.
For more photos check out my Bandidas set on Flickr.