Living The Dream: Going Home with Chef Arturo Balderas’ Dos Banditos

The waft of a scent, snippet of a sight, taste of a home-cooked morsel. It’s an unfailing recipe that brings the happy child in anyone back home. And some have a wish. A wish to bring a slice of their home comfort to others to share like family.

Chef Arturo Balderas had that wish. A dream. That dream came true recently. Now, like a big pot of Mexican pozole, steeped in family love, the chef is sharing the very best of his home and heart in authentic Mexican street food at his new dream restaurant, Dos Banditos, in Fair Haven. It’s an homage to his childhood, his parents Mercedes Gonzalez and Julio Balderas, both of whom he lost in the past couple of years. He’s now sharing all with which they and his extended family enriched his life. Sustenance. Those who know Arturo say, “he’s just generous in that way.”

In spite of the global pandemic that has recently shuttered many small restaurants, the Red Bank resident and co-owner/chef at Tavolo Pronto is open and flourishing. Dos Banditos is located right across the street from Tavolo and next door to the eatery’s baked goods operation, Tavolo Forno, run by his partner and wife, Patti. It’s jam-packed with a lot of happy patrons, home cooking and heart straight from Arturo’s native Mexico City.

And Arturo feels and looks right at home, ear-to-ear smile embracing his face, content in his bustling kitchen cooking up hometown recipes to share with a his huge family of patrons.

“Doesn’t he just look so happy?” Patti said in a chat after an R-FH Retro visit to Dos Banditos. Yes he does. That’s because he is truly at home. Arturo comes from a big family and extended community brood. In Mexico City, he radiates joy when telling you, “everyone cooked. My parents cooked. The neighbors cooked. Everyone would get together and share food.” Each had his or her own specialty. They’d cook all day, sell food on the streets and eat together. And the preparation was always an inspired cultural experience. Call it round-the-clock family time. Work was family time. Kitchen time was family time.

“(For instance) If the lady down the street makes great tamales or huaraches, she (would) cook them at home and sell them on street,” he said. “Everybody would share at home.” Street food for us in the United States is a hot dog cart in New York, Patti said. In Mexico, it’s a way of life, a day-in and day-out tradition.

So is the sharing, never sparing. Arturo remembers all those childhood experiences with love. He remembers one time, for instance, when he and his siblings went to a street fair with their mom. They all had one treat to share. And they did. Share. It puts a smile on his face when he says he can still taste it and feel the aura of that day. The whole day comes flooding back to him. The recipe: the streets of Mexico City, family, community, and that food that brings it all back to one home-satiated food experience.

Mexican street food — and don’t let Arturo hear you call it TexMex or any variation other than authentic — is, as he puts it, “simple, homemade food.” Simple to him because he loves each part of the process. It’s his heritage, after all. His upbringing. So, it’s natural, done with ease for him. Yet, all this simplicity is very labor intensive to an outsider. He will always say “it’s simple” and smile. But to someone else, it’s much more than that.

“That’s why this authentic Mexican street food is so delicious and very hard to find here,” Patti said in a rare moment away from Tavolo as Arturo cooked up Italian and Mexican storms in his kitchens. And when Arturo talks homemade, he really means homemade. From scratch. No store-bought ingredients involved. Never. Very homemade — from tortilla, to salsa, to soup to the tiniest sprinkle of garnish. And each ingredient is fresh. Always fresh, Patti said.

The corn masa, for instance, the key base ingredient in all that wraps up the homemade goodness in all of the Dos Banditos recipes, is brought in fresh every single day. And every tortilla is made from scratch. Everything is. The salsas, Patti said, are another prime example of the nurturing care Arturo takes in every little detail of his cooking. They, Patti said, take hours to make. Arturo makes them himself, roasting chiles and vegetables, blending, stirring and steeping in just the right way, ensuring his own touch of authenticity, savoring the nurturing process. “It makes all the difference in the world,” she added.

And when it’s Arturo’s world of authentic Mexican street food, that difference is made with care. Beyond the masa and salsas, “a lot of work goes into every single taco, for instance,” Patti said. “Each taco has a lot of components.”

Tacos are Arturo’s favorite. Carnitas tacos, in particular. Carnitas is braised pork shoulder/butt that is slow-cooked and, of course, blended with all the right spices and garnishes. It’s another of those labor-intensive ingredients that comes together in a Mexican street food dish that seems so simple to those outside of Arturo’s kitchen from home.

And which dish on the Dos Banditos menu brings him home in his heart most? That would be the pozole. Pozole is a very traditional Mexican meal. It’s hearty, soothing stew served with fresh Mexican oregano, onions and cilantro. At home, for Arturo, a pot of pozole was always simmering on the stove in his family’s kitchen, especially on holidays and special occasions, like a pot of sauce for Italians.

Sopes and quesadillas remind him most of his mom, because those are the things she would make as a special treat on a rare Sunday off. Time off was very rare. Precious. Just as precious as work time. Togetherness. Arturo’s family always worked very hard, Patti said, always with aunts, uncles, sisters, kids visiting and gathering in the kitchen and cooking. Home.

Arturo’s home has been right here since he came to the area from Mexico City at the age of 19. He got his start in U.S. kitchens as a dishwasher for Ralwiggi’s Italian restaurant in Point Pleasant.

From there, he worked his way up through kitchens at the Jersey Shore learning to cook Italian food. He ended up as a chef at the original Tavolo Pronto in Long Branch. So, it was a natural move for him when he and Patti found the Fair Haven space and made an offer to buy the Tavolo business.

It just worked out that way. But, he always wanted to bring the heart of his Mexico City upbringing here. Now he has.

The name? Well, that’s all about family, too. The couple has two boys. Family time, when the boys were little, involved not only cooking, as the tradition goes, but marathon watch parties of Despicable Me. There’s a scene in the movie in which there’s a taco truck dubbed Dos Bros Tacos. They used that name for something else, so they concocted “something cute like that for the boys,” Dos Banditos, as an ode to them and family tradition.

How did the couple manage to realize a dream beginning when others are closing their doors? Well, Patti said, it’s an idea that has always been in the works. The realization of it started to materialize in actual brick and mortar last year around this time, before the pandemic hit.

Tavolo Forno, Patti’s space for baking and the former Frank & Anita’s hair salon, had set up shop next door. The now Dos Banditos space, the former Kind Burgers, was empty. The couple had already had the lease. They had talked to the second Kind Burger owner and told her if she ever decided to leave to let them know. She eventually decided to relocate her family business to Florida. Holidays hit and then COVID came.

“Who knew what the future held?” Patti said. “So we didn’t pursue it. We couldn’t. We didn’t think then that life would go back to where we could offer great Mexican food and pay the rent. But, once we were able to say, ‘OK, people are out buying food,’ it was worth it to get started, even if it wasn’t the same plan. It was certainly a viable option.”

That original plan, for which Arturo and Patti are crystalizing their vision, was to take advantage of the cozy indoor space by offering a fine Mexican street food dining experience.

“We will do that soon,” she said. “We will have the windows open, seating at 25 percent capacity for those who would like to do that.”

Outdoor dining is all set, though, and online ordering is now set up as is full-swing take-out.

Wish granted. The Dos Banditos experience to Arturo Balderas is an authentic culinary take-home, rather than take-out, share.

Thanks for sharing, Arturo!

Check out the Dos Banditos menu offerings and hours by clicking here. Note: If you’re looking for tamales, they do offer them, but on weekends only. Fact of interest: Tamales are a traditional Mexican breakfast food. So, they are typically sold in the mornings on weekends and sell out very quickly. Yes, they are all made from scratch at Dos Banditos and can be bought at Tavolo in the early morning before Dos Banditos opens.

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management