San Antonio’s Bandit BBQ is a restaurant in progress. That’s strange to say for a nearly year-old barbecue joint, but the restaurant hasn’t yet hit its stride. Owner and pitmaster Brandon Peterson hoped for a grand opening in March 2020, but instead settled for a limited menu and curbside service beginning in April. When he was finally able to welcome customers into the dining room last fall, the restaurant remained unfinished. There wasn’t yet enough money for the improvements he’d planned for the space, housed in the Freight Gallery building in Southtown. “There were days we made $150,” Peterson says. He had second thoughts about renewing the lease last December, but now that business is improving, he’s hired more staff, expanded the menu, and is serving an incredible lineup of encased meats along with a burger that turns the joint into a true destination.
I would have missed the burger if not for an unplanned second visit. The first was after a long day of eating; I wanted to get a preview of the barbecue, and sampled a bit at a picnic table on the patio. My two spare ribs were mostly bone, and therefore overseasoned. A thick slice of brisket in a locally made flour tortilla needed the flavor boost from the salsa verde and the pico de gallo. Sides of mac and cheese and green beans stewed with tomatoes were satisfying. Most impressive at that first tasting was a link of house-made boudin dipped into mustard barbecue sauce. After a few bites I wiped my hands, marked Bandit BBQ down for a future visit with hopes it might improve, and went to the car. But before I could pull out of the lot, a man I didn’t recognize approached hurriedly, almost frantically, carrying something in a paper boat.
Mark Garcia, a chef at Bandit BBQ, shoved a naked hot dog on a toasted bun through my open driver’s-side window. “I want you to try this,” he said, as if that fact weren’t startlingly obvious. He briefly explained the process of turning whole briskets into naturally cased wieners, noting that the golden bun had been grilled in beef tallow. I took a bite as Garcia snapped a photo. It was indeed a great hot dog, but more important, Garcia believed in the food he was serving so much that he ran out of the kitchen to meet me in the parking lot. (To head off future parking lot encounters: if you recognize me at your restaurant, simply suggest I order that thing you really think I should try while I’m at the counter.) I reshuffled the following day’s schedule to make a return trip.
Garcia believes that San Antonio barbecue “just got to the sausage-making stage.” He’s right that most joints in the city rely on commercially produced links. Sausage is a bit of an obsession for Garcia, who trained with the internationally recognized charcuterie expert Brian Polcyn. The options at Bandit BBQ vary weekly from cheese and pepper sausage to a pork link stuffed with macaroni and cheese, which was impressive. The boudin was a new recipe that Garcia was able to develop thanks to that newly hired help in the kitchen. That hot dog, named the Bandit Dog, has just recently returned to the menu. Garcia is cautiously optimistic that it will be better received this go-round. “We weren’t really an emulsified meat city,” he says, with the sting of an unpopular crawfish bologna recipe clearly fresh in his mind.
Unlike at some other joints, the hot dog isn’t made with scraps. Garcia takes whole briskets from Dean & Peeler in nearby Floresville, then grinds in salt, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, and a splash of Cashmere Hefeweizen from neighbor Künstler Brewing. The wieners are smoked, chilled, then seared on the flattop. Their length exceeds the grilled bun, allowing for an appetizing bite from each end before you get to the queso, crisp bacon, and green onions that top the signature Bandit Dog. The only thing missing is mustard, which is easy enough to add with a squirt of that mustard barbecue sauce.
Nothing is missing from the more austere—if hefty—double cheeseburger. A slice of American cheese tops each of two heavily seared patties of ground chuck, which pleasantly crumble a bit with each bite. More beef tallow is spread onto a Martin’s potato roll before it’s grilled and topped with a few dill pickle slices, mustard, and a burger sauce reminiscent of Big Mac sauce. This is already my ideal version of a burger, so it was hard not to fall for it upon first sight, but I think I smiled after every juicy bite. Peterson says he’s in discussions with an outside investor for a future burger-focused restaurant, which, judging from what I ate, will be built upon a solid foundation of double meat and double cheese.
The initial investment in Bandit BBQ came from the sale of Peterson’s former home in San Diego in 2019. After growing up in tiny Loop, Texas, and attending college in Abilene, Peterson moved out to California to pursue a music career in 2004. He got married, bought a house, and hauled two reverse-flow smokers from Tyler to his place out west. Bandit BBQ was originally born as a pop-up in San Diego where the tri-tip was as popular as the smoked brisket. Peterson offered the cut when Bandit BBQ first opened in San Antonio, but it wasn’t popular enough with Texans.
Peterson and the staff continue to add new items to the menu, as profitability allows, hoping for a hit. The burger started because Peterson himself was hungry at the restaurant and not in the mood for barbecue. His friend Jason Tantaros, who runs Gold Coffee next door (and helped persuade Peterson to move to San Antonio) asked for a bite. “He said, ‘This needs to go on the menu,'” Peterson recalls, and now it’s a staple. The tri-tip might make a return too. Garcia will add more cased meats and bring back the bologna for another go as well. “Next year there will be hot dogs and bologna on all the menus,” Garcia says, ever bullish on San Antonio’s willingness to warm to beef emulsions.
The pandemic has challenged more than the restaurant’s revenue. Peterson’s pit manager Carlos de Luna was out for a month after contracting COVID, and is finally well enough to return this week. That might explain some of the barbecue issues I encountered on the first visit. With the band finally back together, Peterson is hopeful about the future. Last month they debuted a food truck in Floresville in the parking lot of Dean & Peeler’s meat market, and this week they just started producing their own beef-fat flour tortillas. “I think we’re getting to the spot,” Peterson says. Maybe 2021 will allow Bandit BBQ a proper grand opening.
1913 S. Flores, San Antonio
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10–9
Pitmaster: Brandon Peterson
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2020