Since opening its doors on Cinco de Mayo, Bandera has seen steady business and a handful of positive public input. The new craft taco and margarita joint has found a home in what used to be Mountain Oasis, and though it’s not completely finished, co-owner and beverage director Alex Veléz says Cinco de Mayo and graduation weekends are key to helping kick start the new restaurant.
“We had to open. Those weekends are so huge for Flagstaff, and if we missed them we’d miss out on all the students, the tourists, the visitors and the locals who go out on those weekends and celebrate. We’d miss a big opportunity to get our name out there. Word of mouth is huge for when you’re first starting out.”
He should know. Not only has Veléz been in the restaurant industry since he was 14, he also owns a few successful restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. As well as being a renowned competitive bartender, Veléz is also a food lover, a people pleaser and a keen businessman.
Despite Bandera’s unfinished interior, Veléz says the focus now is crafting quality tacos, appetizers and desserts.
“Our approach is treating a tortilla like a painter would treat a blank canvas,” he says. “It’s not just a chef cooking your food; it’s an artist.”
With a Bandera taco, there’s no need for extra sauce or condiments says Veléz. What you need is on the canvas. Take the al pastor with charred pineapple, green cabbage, onion, cilantro and smoked pork butt. It’s a salty, sweet and savory taco with subtle flavors that might be drowned out by hot sauce or salsa. The adobo is a Filipino-inspired taco with chicken, cabbage and pickled onions dressed in an avocado cilantro lime crema. Again, its flavors are rich and complex, and a salsa might muddy the waters.
There are also vegetarian options, such as the Brussels sprout taco, a Portobello mushroom taco and an avocado taco which replaces the corn tortilla with a grilled avocado. With appetizers such as the smoked corn elote and desserts such as the tres leches cheese cake, Bandera makes up for a small menu with big flavor.
Along with Veléz, owner Don Hulen says the food captures the spirit of the southwest.
“Spending some time in Phoenix, I’d always loved the food down there. It had such a Southwest feel to it. [Veléz] and the cooks are adding their own spin to it, of course, and I felt we needed a way to allow people to experience the Southwest but in our own unique way.”
Reaching even further down south, Bandera’s margaritas tell the story of raicilla, sotol, bacanora, mezcal, tequila and other agave-based drinks. The drink list is arranged chronologically, starting with the earliest inception of the margarita and ending with current versions of the popular beverage.
As with the food, agave is more than something to be consumed. Its usage to create elixirs such as tequila and mezcal can be an art form, and one of Bandera’s visions is to create an agave showroom and gallery with tools and items used by jimadors, agave farmers, enclosed in shadow boxes and mounted on the walls, all of which would be for sale. Proceeds from those sales would go directly to the jimadors themselves or to the village of precedence.
In addition, Bandera hopes to lean toward a sustainable approach to its business, featuring containers and utensils that are biodegradable and eco-friendly, as well as straws made out of cassava, a flavorless, easily degradable starch. Going into business together, Veléz and Hulen saw eye-to-eye on this approach. Veléz because he’s from California where plastic bags are banned and most restaurants swing that way. Hulen because he feels more people today are concerned about their global foot print.
“[Veléz] and I run the same pace on a lot of things, and this was something we knew we wanted,” says Hulen. “I just think that people are becoming more conscious about where their food and drink comes from and where it all goes, so we try to be open with all of that.”
For Hulen, who’s lived in Flagstaff for a little more than four years but has spent his summers here as a child, he sees this city as his home.
He says when Mountain Oasis closed down he immediately jumped on the opportunity.
“When I heard [Mountain Oasis] was closing, I came down to the place, and I think I’d called about it before there was even a ‘for sale’ sign up on the window,” says Hulen. “Bandera has been an idea that’s been floating around for two to three years now. I just thought it was the perfect time to follow through with that.”
There’s still much to do in terms of interior design for Bandera. Veléz and Hulen ignite an impassioned fire in each other’s eyes when they talk about the showroom or the planned casita to enclose a small bar area. As they prepare for graduation week, they’re already looking ahead at their next step.
“The next step is just to keep working,” says Veléz. “You’re not always going to be 100 percent ready, and if you don’t decide to just do it, you won’t ever go. But if you surround yourself with dedicated people who work hard and share that same vision, like we do here, it’ll work out.”
Bandera is located at 11 E. Aspen Ave. and is open Sunday through Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to midnight, and Thursday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. More information by calling (928) 440-540.