Bandit pops up at Porter in January before opening its doors this spring
Get a taste of Bandit before its official opening.
Bandit, a taco restaurant from Grampa’s Pizzeria owner Gil Altschul, is popping up on Friday nights in January in its future home in the historic Milwaukee Road Depot at 640 W. Washington Ave.
Located inside Porter, Altschul’s coffee shop, the pop-ups start at 7 p.m. and feature two types of tacos (vegetarian and meat), fresh tortilla chips and guacamole, pozole (a corn soup made with chicken from Ninepatch Farm) and margaritas on tap. Served on heirloom corn tortillas made in-house, tacos earlier this month have included a cauliflower taco with aioli, kimchi and nori, a chicken taco with pickled red onions and cilantro, and a mushroom taco with Vitruvian Farms oyster mushrooms, pea shoots, salsa matcha and queso fresco.
A taco restaurant from Altschul at the train depot space has been several years in the making; a reunion about a year ago at a local bar with former employee Jonathan Correa reignited Altschul’s drive for the project. “Jon worked for me [at Grampa’s] while he was in culinary school and when we ran into each other at Merchant, he told me how excited he was to make tortillas,” Altschul says.
Correa, who grew up near Lake Geneva and started at Madison College’s culinary program in 2013, says he has had a desire for several years to use traditional techniques to make things like tortillas. “It’s a bit of a lost art in our area,” Correa says. “[When I ran into Gil] I saw it as a great opportunity to realize a dream that I always had … when Gil and I decided to work together again I really started making the tortillas. Every day for six months I was hand grinding them at home trying to understand the process a little better.”
Altschul believes tortillas are the most important part of a taco “but I think it’s an oversight for a lot of people,” he says. “That is always where I wanted the focus to be.” Using corn from Masienda, a company that connects with small farms around Mexico to supply people with heirloom varieties of corn, Correa and Altschul grind the corn to make masa, or dough, for their tortillas.
“You can eat these tortillas fresh with salt and they are great,” Altschul says. When Bandit opens later this spring, Altschul says a ticker board — like one you would find in a train station — will show that day’s varieties of corn. “Every day when you come in you will know the corn we are using and where it come from,” Altschul says.
On a recent trip to Mexico City in November, Altschul and Correa enjoyed learning more about tortillas and had the opportunity to eat at Pujol, a restaurant known for its taco tasting menu. “Jon was telling them about what we are doing and we were invited into the kitchen for a special course,” Altschul says. “They sat two seats for us at the pass, poured us Mexican Pinot noir and served us a huitlacoche and black truffle taco. We stood and ate in the kitchen and they thanked us for coming and Jon started crying.”
Correa smiles at the memory. “The hospitality was insane,” Correa says. “The whole tortilla process is so much trial and error, I never learned these skills from anyone in my family … so getting to see women working with masa and to be able to feel it at Pujol was great.”
In addition to cooking and making tortillas for Bandit, Correa also runs a farm, Holistic Harvest, with his partner, Stephanie Mullis. “When I started working at Grampa’s I met Scott Williams, a farmer from Garden to Be [who supplied produce to Grampa’s]. I worked at Grampa’s for two years and worked for Scott at the farm,” Correa says. “I was harvesting at the farm and later in the week I was using the same products at the restaurant. I started to develop a real love for growing food and cooking.” Now with his own farm, Correa plans on growing some crops, including tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs and radishes, directly for Bandit.
With two more taco pop-ups planned for this month, Altschul will then focus on Bandit’s permanent residence inside Porter beginning this spring. Porter will close for a couple of weeks in February to complete construction on a prep area and Altschul is hoping to open Bandit in March. “By summer we will be in full swing,” he says. Porter will remain a coffee shop in the morning (and don’t worry, the breakfast sandwich is staying) but will become Bandit later in the day. “I’m embracing it — it really is a restaurant with a breakfast and dinner menu … it’s both concepts under one roof,” he says.
As current construction on the train platform continues, there will soon be 60 additional seats in a glassed-in area that will open in the summer and be heated in the winter and include a secondary bar area. Expect Bandit’s menu to “lean towards simplicity,” Altschul says, with about six tacos on the menu. There will be some fun twists too, including a slushie machine and carbonated Yerba mate on tap, and crossover items riffing on Porter’s menu including prosciutto and affogato, a dessert made with espresso and ice cream. “I’m not trying to mis-represent myself as authentic Mexican in any way, I just want to do the cooking that I do and that Jon does and be true to the ingredients and maybe find some kind of unique identity for us in this mash-up of what we are,” Altschul says.