Originally home to the American National Bank, this 1921 landmark will now be filled with the aromas of northern Mexican cooking as Banko Cantina restaurant and tequila bar officially opens to the public at 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 12.
The authentically geared Mexican spot is a labor of love from co-owner Sam Sanchez, a Chicago restaurateur originally hailing from Northern Mexico.
With a rooftop bar and 13,000 square feet of space, many of the building's historical elements have been repurposed, including the red brick wall behind the main bar, and the original reclaimed wood used to construct many of the restaurant's tabletops, shelving, and design work. The space has been custom painted by Chicago artist David Bozic, who blends fine art with street style and is hand-painting his work onto the walls.
The Banko Cantina menu, executed by Samco Enterprises corporate chef Manual Briseno, focuses on the cuisine of Northern Mexico, although it offers a number of other regional styles. The mesquite-grilled meats are inspired by Sanchez's childhood in Nuevo León, Mexico, an area with a desert climate and a large cattle ranching culture that translates to a number of meat-based dishes.
The historical use of wood fire and outdoor cooking is what developed the distinct smoky flavors that are the foundation of Banko Cantina’s extensive list of locally inspired tacos, as well as steak and mesquite-grilled skewers.
The cantina offers an impressive array of handcrafted specialty cocktails created by the restaurant's corporate mixologist Enrique Cobos, including the signature Passion Fruit Sangria. A stunning shade of yellow-gold, it's meant to be a fun, interactive drink at Banko Cantina. Servers and bartenders will instruct you to: "sip it, lick it, suck it." In other words, take the shot of tequila in the jalapeño boat, lick the salt and chili-spiced rim, and then take a quick slug of the habanero-infused tequila and Pinot grigio sangria made with fresh passionfruit puree.
The beverage menu also features more than 30 varieties of tequila and over a dozen Mexican-themed drinks ranging from the beer-based Michelada that features more than 10 ingredients to the Holy Water, Banko Cantina's version of the "skinny" margarita made with fresh-squeezed lime juice, a touch of agave, and tequila. Sanchez himself plans to host tequila chef tasting dinners as well as “tequila tasting 101” classes to share his knowledge of his favorite spirit.
When it comes to food, there's no dearth of options. Small plates include ceviche ($14), flautas de pollo ($12), pulpo a la brasas ($14), mussels la pachanga ($10), a large variety of tacos, and six flavorful, housemade salsas.
Don't leave without trying the lobster taco, a whole Maine lobster tail topped with Briseno's own "secret" sauce. The meat is cradled between two chewy, char-grilled flour tortillas Sanchez has specially imported from his hometown in Salinas Victoria, a municipality located in the state of Nuevo León.
Larger entree-sized plates include meat and seafood selections, offerings like bistec a la tampiquena ($28), a seafood paella ($24), enchiladas ($16), fajitas ($18) and the local catch of the day. The mesquite-grilled skewers are expected to be a huge hit, each skewer delivered to the table and hung from specialty metal stands suspended over a plate with a single slice of charred pineapple. Options include carne asada ($14); bacon-wrapped shrimp and chicken ($12); and vegetales ($10).
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Desserts are no less authentic. There's a Mexican flourless chocolate cake ($10), tres leches housemade ice cream ($9), churros ($8), and a divine Pan de Elote ($10) the chef makes fresh daily in house, a moist corn cake baked in a scalding hot cast iron pan for charred edges that deliver a smokey-sweet note.
"This is a restaurant and concept that is close to my heart," says Sanchez. "A lot of restaurants here serve Mexican food, but we focus on simplicity and authenticity, the food I remember from my childhood. And for that reason, Banko Cantina is unlike any restaurant in the area."
Banko Cantina is located at 114 South Olive St., West Palm Beach. Hours are 4 p.m. to close daily. Call 773-348-8899, or visit bankocantina.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.