Your options are expanding, Mexican food lovers of West Palm Beach. With two new eateries recently opened and another one on deck, downtown and its immediate environs are getting spicier.
This trio of eateries includes the latest outpost of the Boca-based chain Cabo Flats, which has opened at CityPlace, the recently debuted Dos Amigos Mexicali Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Northwood, and the upcoming Banko Cantina, a tri-level, northern Mexico-inspired concept scheduled to open this spring in the Clematis Street dining district.
Planned for an April debut, this last one is the most unique. Its talented culinary crew will bring intensely regional flavors to a newly revamped historic building, the old American National Bank on South Olive Avenue, between Clematis and Datura streets. Aptly named Banko Cantina, the upcoming spot takes inspiration from the fresh cuisine of Mexico’s Nuevo Leon state, where the cantina’s executive chef recently spent time researching local dishes and flavor nuances of the region.
“It’s an interesting region with a complexity of flavors,” says Chef Seth Kirschbaum, who comes to Banko Cantina with an extensive background in flavor – he spent years as an acclaimed vegan chef, first at the upscale Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, and later at Darbster in West Palm Beach.
In touring around and cooking in the northern Mexican cities of Monterrey and Sabinas Hidalgo, Kirschbaum found a passion among chefs for quality local ingredients that would be exalted fragrantly by simple mesquite wood fire.
“I was knocked on my ass when I got there. I couldn’t believe how much they care about what they are preparing. And they were not old-school, but really new-school. It kind of mirrored my own philosophy,” says the chef.
Also unexpected: the guacamole. It has no lime, he found.
“But I gotta tell you something: You get to understand the nuances of the avocado,” says Kirschbaum, who will be adding his own twist as well as Florida-grown ingredients to the menu. “Add a little Serrano chile, onion and a great chip. It’s amazing.”
Banko Cantina is slowly coming to life inside a spacious 1921 landmark building that in 1997 was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The cantina is the brainchild of Chicago restaurant veteran Sam Sanchez, a guy with northern Mexican roots who is founder of Chicago’s Moe’s Cantina. Heading his local team is another industry veteran, Eddie Estevez, former general manager of the now-closed Cantina Laredo in Palm Beach Gardens.
“We’re at a point right now where all the structural stuff is done. Now it’s just the permitting,” says Estevez, who notes the renovation proved to be delicate. “We had to be really strict about maintaining the integrity of the outside and keeping the original columns.”
Inside, the cantina will offer three different dining and entertainment experiences, he says. The main dining room will inhabit the first floor. The second floor will offer a more clubby feel, with a bar and DJ booth to crank up the vibe after 10 p.m. And there’s a rooftop bar for parties and alfresco events.
“To me, it all plays into what people really feel the Mexican dining experience is about,” says Estevez, who seeks to highlight Mexico’s more festive notes. “At Cantina Laredo we were successful with the fine dining thing, but it’s a hard sell. At the end of the day, when you look at the success of the other restaurants, it’s clear people are looking for more than good food. They want the whole experience.”
That said, expect no mariachi tracks.
“We’ll play Mexican rock, like the Maná-style music,” he says, referring to Mexico’s superstar band.
The menu will have a strong regional focus, says Estevez.
“It’s about awareness. You have Tex-Mex places that do what Americans perceive to be Mexican food, when really Mexican food is just like Italian and French – very regional,” he says. “Northern Mexico has its characteristics.”
He notes Nuevo Leon is “cowboy country.”
“We’ll have a lot of grilled meats and slow-braised meats, sauces and chile peppers that are unique to the region,” he says.
So how will a meaty menu be designed and executed by a chef who’s best known for his vegan cuisine?
With gusto, says Chef Kirschbaum.
“I was a vegan chef for a very long time. But I felt I wasn’t being enough of me. My loves are fish and cheeses,” says the chef who is known for his creative dishes and for striking a balance between the refined and soulful.
He is building a network of local purveyors of everything from produce to fish to beer.
“I want everything to have a lot of flavor,” he says, noting that he’s reached out to Boynton’s Copperpoint Brewing Company to produce a signature Mexican chile chocolate stout for Banko.
All this right around the corner from the hottest Mexican eatery on Clematis Street – Rocco’s Tacos.
There’s room for both concepts, says Estevez.
“We’re not trying to do anything that Rocco’s is doing. We’re doing specific northern Mexican. The theme and music – it’s all different,” he says. “They do a great job, and they’ve created a great niche for themselves. We’re our own thing.”
- Opens in spring at 114 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach
- For more information, visit BankoCantina.com