If you haven’t heard of Banditos Tacos & Tequila, Port Chester’s newest Mexican restaurant, I’m not surprised. It is just getting off the ground, but more than that it is breaking ground in a section of Port Chester that is slowly making an exciting and welcome resurgence.
Banditos is located on the section of South Main Street that runs from Grace Church Street to the Boston Post Road where there is currently a fairly new barber shop and beauty salon, Cross Fit and Mad Dog Service auto repair shop. This area was for many years monopolized by the now-defunct Willow Motors. In fact, Banditos inhabits the building that used to be the Willow Motors sales office. The property across the street, also previously part of the truck and auto sales empire, was recently sold at auction. Reportedly there are plans to eventually develop that section of street across the way, which now includes a hodgepodge of shuttered buildings, into a residential and retail complex.
Luis Perez, who used to own Luis’ Place in the adjacent building at the corner of Willow Street, bought the one-story structure at 139 South Main in July 2015. He closed Luis’ Tacos on Oct. 31. Perez said he was planning to move for a while, but there were zoning requirements such as parking and loading after the zoning was changed in 2012 once the village’s comprehensive plan was approved. So he had to obtain variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals in order to open a restaurant.
Then there were other complications. He had a lease with an option to buy, but the building was almost included in the package of properties that were auctioned until he hired a lawyer to fight that action and finally prevailed.
Meanwhile the building that previously housed Luis’ Place at 135 South Main has been closed for violations and deemed unsafe to occupy by the Port Chester Building Department. Perez said since he opened his business there in 2001, it had three different owners in addition to two different banks and “no one put a dollar into it.” Bricks were falling off the top and the foundation was crumbling. Now it is surrounded by scaffolding.
Perez, who was born at United Hospital and graduated from Port Chester High School in 1995, found that his clientele turned into families and “the building was so rundown with no promise for future improvement.” That’s what spurred him to set his sights on a new restaurant just down the street.
Renovations began in 2013, but Perez had to obtain permits and straighten out permits a previous tenant had gotten who started to convert it into a restaurant but ran out of money. The transformation was finally complete and everything ready to go at Banditos Tacos & Tequila the first week in March. The authentic Mexican food remains the same as it was at Luis’ Place, but there is a full bar and a spanking new kitchen and décor. With Perez and chef Salvador Gallego solely holding down the fort, it has so far been hit or miss finding the place open except on Saturday and Sunday, but I assume they will get on a regular schedule soon.
Banditos is cool
What’s cool about Banditos is first of all its name, invoking the Mexican bandits from movies and popular culture, in addition to its unpretentious yet interesting décor, starting with the full tinted glass storefront. Plus the ingredients are all fresh, high quality and everything is made to order. You couldn’t find a nicer guy to shoot the breeze with than Perez who said that even though he’s upgraded his restaurant, he wants it to maintain the image of its predecessor as “a good conversation place.”
“I still want my old crowd,” he said. “Those people have been loyal to me for years. I would rather have them every day than have a couple come in every two months.” Besides college kids and neighborhood families, he gets the chefs, sous chefs and kitchen staff from many of the other restaurants in town eating at his place.
“It’s a great compliment,” said Perez Monday night. “I had half of Sonora’s staff in here yesterday.”
Authentic Mexican food
Perez said his original concept was to open a Mexican hibachi style restaurant where the chefs would dress up as banditos and do shows for the patrons as they do at Japanese hibachi steakhouses like Edo. However, that idea proved too expensive and will be saved as a dream for the future.
For now, Gallego cooks up a selection of meats—Angus beef (bistek), Angus chopped beef (bistek molida), aged salted Angus beef (Cecina), chicken (pollo), Mexican sausage (chorizo), pork (carnitas), pineapple marinated pork (pastor), beef liver (higado) and beef tongue (lengua)—on the grill which can be fashioned into tacos ($3.50-$4), burritos ($5-$6), tostadas ($4-$4.50), tortas ($7-$8), sincronizada (flour tortilla based sandwich with cheese, choice of meat, sour cream and toppings at $10-$12), nachos ($8.50) or quesadillas ($3 for cheese to $6.50 for beef tongue).
There are also platillos ($10-$12) which include a choice of two meats, beans, salad, rice and tortillas.
The tacos, burritos and tostadas include a choice of meat plus beans, cheese, sour cream, salsa and toppings. The toppings for these and everything else all come from a fixings bar which includes chopped lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, avocado, whole jalapenos which can be sliced upon request and red or green salsa (warning: the red is very spicy, the green not so much).
With anything you can get sides of rice, beans and avocado for $2.
So far I’ve had the chicken tacos where the chicken came tender and piping hot with two tortillas to which I added lots of fresh items from the fixings bar. At that point I didn’t know about the cheese or beans, which weren’t available for self-service, and so didn’t ask for them.
I also had an Angus chopped beef quesadilla ($5) which brought a flour tortilla topped with meat and Mexican cheese folded in half, fried crispy and cut in two pieces.
On another occasion, a Monday night, the selection of meats was sparse, so I had a beef sincronizada ($10), which was similar to the quesadilla except made with two flour tortillas filled with meat and cheese and fried crispy, so essentially a sandwich twice the size of the quesadilla. I ate it dipped in guacamole and/or sour cream, which was a good choice, but later learned I could add toppings as well. My husband had a beef burrito which he topped with beans, cheese and other fixings but then didn’t know how to fold the flour tortilla correctly so it was difficult to eat. He also made the mistake of dousing it with the red salsa I warned about above. Perez later told us he doesn’t even use that one.
Besides all these traditional meat and tortilla-based Mexican specialties, I particularly enjoyed the refreshing coctel de camarones (Mexican shrimp cocktail), which comes in two sizes for $12 or $16. The small version filled a bowl with large pieces of shrimp, onions, avocado, tomato and cilantro mixed with lime and clamato juice—enough for two to share as an appetizer.
The guacamole, which Perez makes fresh every morning, was also a highlight. It doesn’t have tomatoes but does have a little kick, the result of adding serrano peppers. “I never ate guacamole,” Perez said. He went to Mexico where he had guacamole that was spicy which he liked. So, for his own version, “I tried different peppers until I found the right one.” It comes in two sizes, priced at $3.50 and $7.50, and is served with tortilla chips.
Besides the coctel de camarones, specialties listed on the Banditos menu include a shrimp taco made with shrimp, avocado, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, Tapatio hot sauce and clam juice ($6) which I will be sure to try on a future visit. There is also a vegetarian burrito ($3) and grilled chicken salad ($6) consisting of grilled chicken, lettuce and choice of other ingredients.
Another specialty is the menudo or tripe soup ($10) which Perez said Luis’ Place and now Banditos is known for. It’s Perez’s grandfather’s recipe consisting of beef tripe, chiles, herbs, cow feet, onions, avocado and tomato.
It’s so popular that “when we were closed, people would ask ‘would you make me some?’” he said.
Perez also recommends the cow tongue or lengua which can be incorporated into any of the meat and tortilla-based items. After you get past the texture, said Perez, you can’t beat the flavor. So, if you’re adventurous, give the menudo or tongue a try.
Drinks a work in progress
Since Perez only had a beer and wine license at his previous restaurant and now has a full bar, he is looking to build up the mixed drink menu.
Right now Banditos offers an excellent house blend margarita, with or without salt, for $5, $8 with a top shelf tequila.
“I’m looking to have a mixologist come in and do specialty margaritas” in different flavors, he said. He also has a machine to make frozen margaritas.
Other drinks of interest are the Shrimp Beer ($8) which consists of a can of Tecate with an extra jumbo shrimp topped with salt and tabasco sauce sticking out of the opening. Perez went on vacation to Mexico and this drink quickly became his beverage of choice on the beach. He figures it will be a nice refreshing drink to enjoy during the warm weather on the patio that is in the works behind Banditos.
Another interesting alcoholic beverage currently available is a Michelada ($8), a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka which is popular in Mexico. It comes in different intensities depending on your preference. At Banditos, it is served in a large glass garnished with a shrimp, an orange slice and a cucumber slice.
To date when I have visited, there have been no servers—just Perez doing double duty as server and bartender or Gallego bringing food items to your table. However, Perez said his 14-year-old son Jude helps out on Sundays clearing tables. I’m sure as Banditos becomes known and gets busier, the situation will change. I know Perez plans to add a second cook.
Wild West decor
Banditos occupies a long, deep space where a black and white photo of a bandito greets you as you walk in the door. Next up is the bar with its granite top which matches the kitchen counter top in the striking Mexican colors of red, white and green. Both the cocktail bar and fixings bar have oak bases that remain from the cubicles that existed when this was the Willow Motors sales office. There is dark wood behind the bar around two TVs that are encircled by what look like grommets but are actually bullets that have been hammered into the wood.
There are striking multi-colored wood floors which run from light oak to medium maple, dark wood paneling, two walls with three-dimensional fake stone accents and the remaining walls painted pale gray like the ceiling tiles.
A large gray-framed murky black and white photo of six banditos is set into the wall opposite the kitchen.
Simple square wood tables and matching chairs with black cushioned seats complete the picture.
Perez hopes to have the patio that is being constructed out back completed by Cinco de Mayo.
Hours and parking
Banditos is open Sunday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 midnight with food only served until 10 p.m.
There is free parking on either side of South Main Street until 1 a.m.
Continuing a 30-year family tradition
Banditos is a work in progress, a casual, inexpensive place for some authentic Mexican food in a section of town you might not have visited. I had never been to Luis’ Place, but this new restaurant in the same vicinity piqued my interest.
The Perez family’s taco tradition in Port Chester actually dates back to 1986 when Perez’s father, also named Luis, who immigrated to Port Chester from Mexico, opened Luis’ Tacos in a building on South Main Street which was acquired in 1999-2000 by G&S Investors as part of the marina redevelopment project. Gallego, the chef, whom Perez called “a workhorse,” has been with the family business from the beginning, a total of 30 years.
Perez worked for his father since he was 12 or 13 and learned the ropes. His father took him to the Fulton Market in the Bronx to purchase meat and produce and to Mexico to check out the avocados and tomatoes. “He made me want to take over,” his son said.
Continuing his father’s tradition of making sure people have a good meal regardless of their ability to pay, Perez has started a $3 lunch special for kids which includes two tacos and juice or soda because he gets lots of students walking by on their way home from Kennedy School.