Built inside the gutted remains of the historic American National Bank Building (also known as the former Morrison’s Cafeteria) at 114 South Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach, Banko Cantina offers an upscale take on Northern Mexican cuisine. The beautiful 1921 building has had a checkered past, constructed on land once owned by city founder Henry Flagler, the bank ran for many years, was abandoned for decades, then became a Morrison’s Cafeteria to feed retirees, then was empty for another 30 years. The imposing stone front and side street location may have had much to do with it’s neglect.
Now new owner Sam Sanchez, who owns upscale eateries in Chicago, has taken on the historic property, gutting it and rebuilding all three floors with the main restaurant and tequila bar on the ground floor.
Banko Cantina space is pretty spectacular as diners have become more sophisticated about the restaurant interiors recently and theatrical dining halls are a main attraction. This building has three levels, a 13,000 square-foot restaurant on the double ceiling height ground floor, with 130 seats in the main dining room. The restaurant’s second floor was designed especially for special events, including corporate events and private parties with lush couches, a long bar against the windows, a DJ booth and a dance floor. The 3,000 square foot third floor, partially covered rooftop features a 90-foot bar in the center, with 14-foot ceilings, seating for 150, along with a kitchen serving lunch and dinner from a select menu starting in the fall. The restaurant also features fourteen 60-inch televisions throughout for sporting events.
The ground floor at Banko Cantina uses reclaimed wood for the tabletops and Chicago artist David Bozic, who blends fine art with street-style, painted the glam Day of the Dead lady images on the walls and columns. There’s even a fireplace illuminated with electric candles in the ground floor lounge. Pierced, lattice work metal chandeliers hang in multiple clusters from the ceiling, and the front boasts huge double doors that open out onto the street. The sultry night we dined there the doors were wide open yet it was wonderfully cool and breezy inside thanks to smartly placed blowers and fans. The helpful friendly tattooed staff couldn’t have been nicer.
In a twist from most local Mexican eateries, the restaurant features Northern style Mexican cooking and is inspired by Mr. Sanchez’ childhood in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. An engaging and ebullient host, Sanchez was happy to tell us the differences in the foods and spices used as 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.
While the menu may be Northern Mexican, the ingredients are locally grown and harvested produce and fish when possible. Desserts are made in house – and they are spectacular but more on that in a bit. The restaurant uses authentic imported tortillas from the Northern region of Mexico. Sanchez has had big success with his Chicago restaurants – John Barleycorn, Moe’s Cantina, and Old Crow Smokehouse – where Sanchez was recently awarded Restaurateur of the Year 2015 from the Illinois Restaurant Association, so he knows what he’s doing in this new adventurous space.
He started off our meal with an imaginative take on a margarita. This martini-shaped glass concoction came with two different flavored salts on each side – one had lime salt, the other had chili spiced salt. There was an inside out lime half floating in the glass filled with Mezcal. Sanchez told us to drink from the lime salt side, then knock over the lime half so the Mezcal spilled into the margarita, then sip from the chili salt side. The difference was a knockout – smoky and spicy compared to the tangy citrus taste from the first sip. The tequila dealt a delicious punch as well.
Banko Cantina Signature Cocktail
Then we stared with some fresh made guacamole, which Sanchez explained was his special recipe using serrano peppers rather japaleno, which gives a richer taste. The Haas avocados had a nice velvety taste and the house made chips were crisp and fresh. There is a full salsa menu, with a variety of tastes including mango, chimichurri and tomatillo.
For entrees we shared the catch of day fish, grilled banana leaf-wrapped local catch, with chipotle sauce and fried plantains, a nice mix of Latin flavors with a good thick fish steak. We also split the grilled lobster tail tacos with pickled red onion slaw (red onion, banana pepper, radish, bitter orange juice, oregano, cilantro) micro greens, and imported flour tortillas from Mexico. Lobster tacos seem like such an indulgence, and these tasty tacos came with a nice spicy kick. Next time we’ll have some of the skewers of shrimp, steak or veggies, grilled over mesquite wood.
Variety of Food at Banko Cantina
Of course we had to have deserts since Sanchez insisted, so we let him order for us. Good thing we did, as these gorgeously prepared plates were a real treat. One was a pan de leche cake, moist and creamy topped with vanilla bean ice cream on a bed of chocolate sauce with blueberries scattered about. The other was a Lincoln Log house of churros – usually fried but these were baked pastry made with vanilla and coconut, stacked and topped with the vanilla bean ice cream with a Mexican chocolate dipping sauce and more berries. Absolute heavenly deserts, the churros were so good I took some home and had them with my coffee the next morning.
Photos of Desserts at Banko Cantina
Chef Manuel Briseno, a native of Durango, Mexico, serves as 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, so his cred as a Northern Mexican chef is truly earned.
There has been a lot of money and thought put into Banko Cantina and it shows in every possible way with beautifully detailed interiors, imaginative food and gracious hosts. Ole!
If you visit:
Banko Cantina is located at 114 S. Olive Street, West Palm Beach, 33401 and check on its website for information about menu, hours and events: www.BankoCantina.com
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