Take a culinary journey to Northern Mexico at Banko Cantina

On May 12, downtown West Palm Beach gained what will doubtless be a major player in the Clematis district dining scene, as Banko Cantina, a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar, opened to the public at 114 S. Olive Avenue. Originally home to the American National Bank, this 1921 landmark building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Banko Cantina’s interior includes elements of the historical building, including the original wood, used for the tabletops, as well as the chandeliers and tiles. Chicago artist David Bozic, who blends fine art with street-style, handpainted his work onto the walls.

The three level 13,000 square foot restaurant features a rooftop bar, lounge, private dining space and 130 seats in the main dining room. The restaurant’s second floor was designed especially for special events, including corporate events and private parties. The 3,000 square foot third floor partially-covered rooftop features a 90-foot bar in the center, 14 foot ceiling, seating for 150, along with a kitchen serving lunch and dinner from a select menu. The restaurant also features 14 60-inch televisions throughout for sporting events.

Chicago restaurateur Sam Sanchez co-owns Banko Cantina and is closely involved in its management, with Eddie Estevez serving as the general manager.  Chef Manuel Briseno, a native of Durango, Mexico, serves at the corporate chef overseeing the menu.  Briseno began his culinary career at age 17, catering events for large-scale events.  At 22, Briseno moved to Nuevo Leon, in Northern Mexico and, at 24, he moved to the U.S. and spent eight years at McCormick & Schmick’s, where he learned to cook traditional American fare. Banko Cantina will also host a visiting chef series featuring chefs from various regions of Mexico.

The restaurant features Northern style Mexican cooking and is inspired by Mr. Sanchez’ childhood in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Mexican cuisine consists of many different regional styles, depending on the climate of the area. Northern Mexico’s desert climate supports a large livestock population that led to the region’s meat-based dishes. The ranching culture’s 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, steak and mesquite-grilled skewers.

The restaurant incorporates locally grown and harvested produce and fish when possible, varying with seasons, and only buys enough for two days, ensuring freshness.

Recently, Palm Beach Happening had the opportunity to dine at this magnificent establishment, and sample some of the dishes that will soon be the talk of the town. The food here is served family style, meant to be shared with the entire table. Some culinarians refer to the style as Tapas, but as the manager of the place stated, tapas are small plates, and they don’t believe in that here!

We began our meal with an order of queso fundido. This Mexican appetizer staple, consisting of Melted chihuahua, rajas poblano, smoky chorizo, charred flour tortillas, can be found at many different restaurants, and is either hit or miss, depending on where you go. Here at Banko, it is definitely a hit. The chorizo adds a generous amount of flavor, without being greasy at all.

Unlike many Mexican restaurants around town, this one doesn’t serve salsa along with their chips. Instead, you choose which salsa you want to enjoy from their menu. They have six to choose from, depending on what you’re in the mood for. We opted for the Banko’s Salsa, which features Green tomatillo, chile de arbol, garlic, onions, soy oil, cilantro and salt. It was a little spicy,  but not overwhelming, and very pleasant. Their top seller is the guacamole, but we’re not big fans of the green stuff!

We also ordered the Elotes, which consists of Charred corn, crema, cotija, chiles, and lime. You can’t go wrong with Mexican street corn, and this is amazing. It is sweet, cheesy, and yummy; the best kind of appetizer!

For our main course, we enjoyed Camarones con Tocino and Tacos al Pastor.

The Camarones con Tocino is one of their many skewers that they are known for. It consists of jumbo shrimp, wrapped in basil and bacon.

The Tacos al Pastor, recommended by our server, consist of Mesquite grilled pork tenderloin, three-chile rub, grilled vegetables, and salsa tostada. They were spiced very well, and came in a large portion. All of their tacos are served four to five per order.

Manager Eddie Estevez also recommended casrne asada  and pollo bravo skewers, but we didn’t have enough room in our bellies to try them this time!

Desserts are also made in house. We finished our meal with Pan de Elote and Churros. The Pan de Elote was agreed to be the better of the two, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the Churros, especially on National Doughnut Day. Both were served with vanilla ice cream, also made in house.

In addition to its extensive menu, Banko Cantina features handcrafted specialty cocktails including Passion Fruit Sangria and Micheladas, local and Mexican beer, and more than 30 tequilas. Sanchez will host tequila chef tasting dinners as well as “tequila tasting 101” classes to share his knowledge of his favorite spirit.

We sampled four of their amazing adult beverages. The Holy Water is made with Patrón Silver, agave nectar, lime juice, and a black lava sea salt rim. It was very smooth, strong, and sweet. It is probably the sort of drink that if you weren’t careful, you’d leave a little more tipsy than you anticipated! The Banko Margarita consists of Sauza Blue, triple sec, sweet-and-sour house mix, and a salted rim. It was a very yummy margarita, but not quite as popular on the menu as their Banko Premium Margarita, which is Patrón Silver, Grand Marnier, sweet-and-sour house mix, and a salted rim.

We also enjoyed the Adelita, which is Eddie Estevez’s favorite drink on the menu. It is made with Herradura Resposado, fresh lime juice, sour mix, Cointreau, Vida Mezcal float, and a salt and chili pepper rim. On our server’s recommendation, we had the El Sueno, which is like a Mexican Pina Colada, made with Pineapple-infused vodka, coconut cream, coconut water, lime juice, and a toasted coconut rim.

We’d like to thank Eddie Estevez and the staff of Banko Cantina for their hospitality. If you’re looking for a true taste of Mexico in downtown West Palm Beach, be sure to check them out! For more information visit Banko Cantina on the web or see them at FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.