Bandera Craft Tacos

Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, October 2018

Written by Gail G. Collins

As drinkers down tequila, Mexico’s raises production, which is expected to reach 290 million liters this year. Agave syrup and a newfound embrace of mescal—on par with world-class scotch or cognac—have upped the demand for agave overall. This is a boon, but it is at odds with an artisanal product that takes long years to cultivate.

The demand is global and labor intensive legacy farming strains to respond. Outside corporate agronomics enters the market, disrupting village practices. Fast cash tempts farmers, too. Some harvest plants early and others overharvest and risk ongoing pollination by the long-nosed bat, while cloned plant farms are susceptible to disease. All of these unsustainable practices threaten a fragile ecosystem and the trade itself.

Is there an agave crisis? Organizations, like the Tequila Interchange Project, believe so and advocate the preservation of ecological, traditional and quality practices in the agave distilled spirits industry.

Bandera Craft Tacos is also collaborating with agave farmers. The newest eatery near Heritage Square is on a mission to “give back, rebuild communities and create an environmental consciousness through agave and taco love.” While craft tacos and margaritas are the means, Bandera’s aim is to tell the story of the people, who produce the lovely elixir, known as tequila. Through the display and sales of art and goods, the eatery will return proceeds to the villages of origin to support communities and improve the work situation for agave farmers.

Owner Don Hulen grew up around his mother’s catering, making tamales from scratch to sell at a stand. While looking for a downtown location for taco sales, he met Alex Velez. A considered leader, who pushes boundaries in alcohol and spirits, Velez merged concepts with Hulen. With plaudits, such as Best Bartender in Las Vegas and winner of 128 liquor competitions since 1993, Velez is a standing judge for the American Distillery Institute and Bandera’s beverage director.

Tequila and tacos expanded to the inevitable margarita. Bandera’s menu presents a chronology of the industry classic. Learn the history and enjoy signature flavors “that will leave your tongue dancing la Macarena for hours,” the menu promises. Velez shunned the title of Margarita King, but as Bandera gained acclaim by pouring 4,000 margaritas in the first three months, he relented.

Velez belts out a handsome baritone as he shakes up top seller Corazon de Flagstaff (Heart of Flagstaff). Vibrant color and appeal are the result of Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur and tequila blanco with a blended float of blood orange, passion fruit and pomegranate.

“Mescal, an agave distillate, is the mother of everything,” said Velez. “It is smoked, earthy.” Raicilla, a distillate cousin, is offered in various forms, supplied by Mexican spirits co-ops.

Bandera’s bar is vast and well-curated with a long list of liquors. Unleaded beverages catalog velvety house-made horchata coco and stylish sodas, like Jarrito, in flavors of tamarind or guava. And don’t fuss over the straw in your glass; it’s naturally hay-based.

The other half of the story at Bandera is craft tacos—global handfuls of quality cuisine.

“Our tortilla is a canvas for the culinary experience,” said Hulen. “They are designed to be eaten as served, not dressed with salsa, on an edible plate.” Flagstaff’s Tortilla Lady furnishes that plate.

Bring on the tacos! The carne asada goes upscale with tender outer skirt steak, red cabbage, radish sprouts, pickled vegetables and a squirt of chimichurri. Al pastor sizzles sweet and smoky with shreds of pork butt, onion and cilantro with cabbage and charred pineapple.  Farmers’ stock receives the pineapple tops and other compostable waste as feed. “The cows think it’s a treat,” said Hulen.

The vegetarian options are also vegan. The Portobello mushroom taco is hearty and textured with kohlrabi slaw, charred cabbage and scallions, topped with pickled carrot and jalapeño plus sage aioli for tangy nuance. Grilled, shaved Brussels sprouts form a strong base for hot citrusy togarashi aioli. Skip the tortilla and order the grilled avocado, creamy with a satiating blend of tepa bean, spices and infused chili oil.

Extras include grilled elote (grilled corn), scattered with cotija cheese and chili with drizzles of agave, chili oil and chipotle ranch. Nosh on coarse corn chips with fresh pico de gallo or guacamole and add humble pinto beans to fill your plate. For dessert, one perfect option—tres leches cheesecake, a moist sponge with generous layers of cream.

Bandera’s blend of honest labor with superior ingredients yields a quality outcome for Flagstaff taco and tequila lovers, but it doesn’t stop there. Bandera plans to invite Mexican agave farmers to impart tastings and education on their industry. “The plan is to build a bridge and to save the agave,” said Velez. NAMLM

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