I HAVEN'T HAD much experience with authentic Mexican cuisine. I'm from Chicago dontchaknow, which is still one of the most segregated cities in all of these United States; never had a burrito 'til after I crossed the Mississippi two decades into my life. The onliest Mexican foods we had were those soggy tamales that come out of a can, and chili. And is chili even Mexican?

In the years since I've been planted on this coast, I've discovered that despite a sizable and healthy Latino population, true Latin cuisine can be fairly difficult to find in the Northwest. I've eaten bogs of refried beans that seemed to have been pre-chewed and digested before they hit the re-fryer, surrounded by napalm-hot globules of microwaved government cheese. What did we do to bring this plague of burritos upon us? I'm convinced that the constant expansion of Taco Del Mar franchises is proof positive that there is a Satan. Don't get me started on "wraps."

But occasionally I have stumbled upon a respite from the mediocrity that passes for Latin cuisine. Paseo in Fremont, Gorditos in Greenwood, the Tacos Guaymas chain, El Gallito on Madison, and El Puerco Lloron in Pike Place Market all seem to have a ring of authenticity about them, at least to my novitiate tastes. But none of these is as humble or successful as Eastlake's Bandoleone.

I call it humble because of its size. Smallish, a tad bit larger than intimate, its diminutive size makes Bandoleone appear as little more than a neighborhood bar. But its gifted mixologists can serve a cocktail as ample and mature as bars four times its size. The dining room is cozy, and when weather permits, there are six tables on the enclosed back patio.

Bandoleone boasts a separate cigar menu, and devotes Mondays to those who enjoy the hefty tobacco logs along with their finer dining experience. On Sundays and holidays they manage to accommodate live jazz; on the first Wednesday of each month they host an informal wine-tasting devoted to Spanish, Portuguese, and other Latin wines. And herein lies the true ethnic identity of its cuisine. Bandoleone boasts a strong undercurrent of nouvelle Mediterranean Spain, tinged with the flavors of its European sister Portugal. And while there are strong traces of Mexico to be found throughout Bandoleone's short but rambunctious menu, there are also suspicions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and assurances that anywhere the conquistadors touched down and settled -- which means all of South and Central America -- those lands' flavors will be represented here.

As one would suspect, such a wide berth of influences sometimes leads to confusion in the palate. Neither I nor my dining partner knew what to make of the Atun de las Madrinas ($8.50) from the tapas menu. Described as a "tartar of fresh ahi tuna cured in lime with habañero chiles," the dish takes a left turn with the addition of coconut, all of which is served atop a salad made of cucumber and caramelized pineapple, and slices of chayote, the meat of a cactus. The Costillas Tropicales ($7.50) features hearty beef short ribs strangely braised with guava chipotle and served alongside a slaw-like "Cuban salad," doused with apple cider vinaigrette. But I recommend without reservation the Gambas al Ajillo ($8.50) -- buxom, sautéed tiger shrimp and three-layer cornbread -- as well as the meatless Empanadas las Fuentes ($6.50), filled with hot and sweet peppers, yams, and roasted corn.

While vegetarians can be well served by juggling various tapas and salads, the only vegetarian offering on the main menu is the Tamale Buena Suerte ($15), a mixed-vegetable tamale pie. Dunno 'bout it; didn't have it. Instead my companion and I fought between the Estrella de Cordero Asado ($21) -- a rack of lamb served amid a complex of flavors: lavender quince sauce, goat cheese, asparagus, and that cactus again -- and the Pato Rojo ($17), a breast of duck with rhubarb glaze and a lovely cornbread pudding speckled with red onion. My compañero wanted to try the Pesca Tarifa (seared tuna), but I checked him with the hunkahunka Chuleta Ahumada ($16) -- a smoked and grilled pork loin wading in a veal/sage demi-glace. It was a tender and substantial piece of meat, irresistibly confronted with pineapple-mustard salsa and accompanied with signature honey-chipotle whipped potatoes. The dish best exemplified the aim of Bandoleone, to quietly but firmly gloat in its Latin authenticity.

Bandoleone 2241 Eastlake Ave E, 329-7559


Dinner Sun-Thurs 5:30-10:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5: 30-11 pm; brunch Sat-Sun 9 am-2:30 pm. Sunday nights feature live jazz; Monday nights are Havana nights, with cigar smoking permitted in the entire joint. Full bar.

Latin Cuisine, as Real as It Gets