Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their first anniversary.
The 4,000-square-foot Bandito Latin Kitchen & Cantina opened a year ago in the Hughes Center with a mix of rustic and modern decor, including finished metals, hand-distressed woods, and bright colors, all lit with natural light that fills the restaurant through its 30-foot tall glass windows. A hand-pressed tortilla station anchors the open kitchen, while the rectangular bar features distressed butcher-block counters, hand-laid tile and a 30-foot steel shelving structure that houses the liquor and a pair of 60-inch television sets. Local artist Brett Rosepiler created two huge murals of “Bandito” and “Rosie” in the main dining room that seats 150 in the cantina and dining room, and also on its outdoor patio. Here, co-owner Kent Harman talks about the first year of the Mexican restaurant, its ups and downs, bright spots, and more.
What made you decide to open Bandito?
Where to begin, I have always been an entrepreneur. As a kid, I was a self-made businessman. You know, mowing lawns, paper routes. At 19, I started my own music concert production company, so entrepreneurship has always been in my blood. After a very successful restaurant career running other people’s companies, I decided that now was the time to combine all of my passions under one roof. After a 10-year run on the Strip, I knew Vegas was the perfect home for my dream.
Why open at the off the Strip on Restaurant Row?
It feels like the best of all worlds, Bandito Latin Kitchen & Cantina is very easy for locals to get to and from all parts of the valley and we have plenty of free parking, so if you’re having a business meeting, going to the Strip for an event or meeting out of town guests, Bandito is very convenient. It’s also less than a mile from the convention center (soon to double in size), which is great for building our event side of the business, which we love to host. It’s close to UNLV, the airport, Downtown and the Strip; what more could you ask for?
What have you learned in the first year of running Bandito?
If something can go wrong, it will. I used to think I had this business figured out, but there is always more to learn. This past year has definitely made us stronger but I have found that perseverance, passion, and commitment to success will overcome just about anything. It’s definitely all about teamwork. We have a great team and it’s an honor to work alongside them and see them grow. Plus, we also found out who our target market was. We thought for sure that we would have an even split between locals and tourists, as we are only three blocks from the Strip, however, we found a higher rate of locals that choose to dine at Bandito and continue to come back for more. From that, we decided to amp up our weekly specials with Taco Tuesday, Wine Down Wednesdays.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
We wanted everything to vibe. As we never tried to call ourselves traditional — not in terms of food, drink, or atmosphere — we didn’t want our place to try and look that way either. We are doing our own take on a little bit of elevated Latin comfort food and wanted a match in terms of the restaurant’s look, everything from curb appeal to the murals decorating the interior walls. The place is bright, airy, colorful, modern, industrial, and most of all it’s sexy. I love the look on people faces when they first walk in. Clearly, our décor is not something they’re expecting, as we are unique, for sure. No sombreros or Corona neon signs on the walls here. The music is all up beat and fun and more modern than your more traditional spot.
Did you change the menu at all? If so, what was the menu testing process like?
Not much at all. We are really happy with our core menu. We use our special sheet to play with new ideas and try to keep it very seasonal.
Has Las Vegas embraced the location?
Absolutely, and we are very proud of that. We really wanted to build a Vegas brand where people can bring visitors and be proud. Our lunch crowd is almost exclusively local and we already have a ton of regulars already. UNLV has been a huge supporter, from faculty and students, and the pregame basketball crowds got bigger and bigger throughout the year. Excited to see what year two brings.
Six months in, what changed?
The Oct. 1 incident happened at our four-month mark, and it scared the hell out of all of us. We had worked so hard for two years to get Bandito opened, and couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to put a cloud over the town, cause tourists to cancel. It was definitely a transition period and was a difficult time for the Las Vegas community, but as a team we bonded together and it made us stronger. We continued to pullthrough, and after the new year, business picked up again, and has been growing ever since.
What’s the most unexpected thing that happened in the first year?
The interest level. We were named one of top 50 restaurant openings in the country for 2017 by USA Today. That was pretty unexpected for sure.
How about the craziest thing?
Earlier this year, we had the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise at Bandito. They were here for 15 hours with full film crew. I’ve been a part of a few film shoots before but never like that. We asked our regulars to help fill the place up and they responded big time. So now not only did we have a 12-person film crew following our every move but we were slammed. What a day. The episode is expected to air soon. Stay tuned.
What’s the must-order dish of the moment?
The habanero shrimp and carne asada. It’s a gorgeous dish with beautiful, plump, crunchy Mexican brown shrimp that have been drenched in our signature blood orange habanero sauce atop our wonderful roasted veggies including Romanesco, baby carrots, caramelized peppers, onions and golden cauliflower. The dish is based with a home-made jalapeño cheese tamale and finished with a perfectly cooked piece of carne asada. In other words, it perfectly exemplifies who we are.
What’s on tap for the future?
You know, I had grand plans of expansion before we opened, but after this wild first year, I think I just want to focus on continually making Bandito the best we can be and we will see what happens.
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