The Bando is not hard to find.
Take the Martin Luther King exit on 285 southbound, and drive eastward, back toward downtown Atlanta. You’ll pass the C.T. Martin Natatorium on your left, just after exiting the interstate, then you’ll pass beneath a small bridge where the street dips, near the intersection of MLK and Lynhurst Drive.
To your immediate right after crossing Lynhurst, you’ll see a lot anchored by a Wayfield Foods grocery store, as well as a Citi Trends clothing store, and a few other strip mall shops. Don’t look too hard or you’ll miss the arching red and white “The Bando” sign, clean and bright above the door on the storefront’s maroon awning.
The Bando, according to co-owner Richard Burk, opened in October, but didn’t get a great deal of press due to the fact that most of us weren’t looking for new restaurants as the COVID pandemic raged on, especially those who don’t live near Adamsville in southwest Atlanta.
But now that summer is here, and folks are getting back out into the streets, the buzz is getting louder.
After reading my friend Nick Love’s tweet, I realized that The Bando is not far from East Point, where I live. It’s also just down the street from my longtime barber Cuts By Juice, so I’m very familiar.
I told Brandon, who was also familiar with the location and seen it recently but hadn’t yet tried it. We both decided to make a trip yesterday.
“From the outside,” Brandon said, “it looks like any other wing joint, but once you step inside you instantly feel like the police are going to raid the place at any moment. Some people would be worried, but I call it an authentic ATL bando experience.”
I concur — nothing from the outside (other than having a sign that says “The Bando”) prepares you for what it looks like once you’ve walked through the door. And it’s definitely an interior design aesthetic that challenges contemporary ideas of what a restaurant should look like in order to appeal to curious customers.
The easy way to describe The Bando: It’s very much a duplicate of the Trap Music Museum’s lobby. The difference is that this is a legit restaurant with a kitchen window that sells food cooked to order.
Brandon says when he arrived Wednesday (we made separate trips), it was just after noon, and the restaurant was just opening for the day.
He commended the service he received at the counter. “It was really good. Much friendlier service than I’ve ever experienced in any bando that I’ve been to… They even give you a Faygo grape or red soda with your order. I felt like I was back at the Piggly Wiggly by my grandma’s house. Details people, it’s all about the details.”
I visited around 4pm. Burk was friendly and extremely professional to guests who came in and out to pick up orders while I took a look at the menu.
The Bando’s menu pays homage to Burk’s hometown of Detroit, and the tastes of ATLiens. Wings are of course a big draw, but equally promoted is the Detroit Coney, an all-beef hot dog topped with chili, onion and mustard, with cheese and bacon optional for additional cost.
Brandon says he went straight for the big ticket: The Bando’s “Crack Wings.”
Yes, The Bando seriously has a menu item called “Crack Wings.”
Crack Wings are breaded, fried and seasoned with “a sweet and savory powder.” Brandon described them as tasting like lemon pepper wings with powdered sugar on top.
The obvious response here is that this is a new frontier in culinary experimentation and Atlantan gastronomy that nobody else thought to do, to say the least. I asked Brandon, why would he, or anyone else, anyone order such a thing?
“Because why would you go to the bando and not get crack…wings,” Brandon said via text. “They were pretty good but the sweet and salty flavor was a new experience for a lemon pepper vet like me.”
Being a little less brave about eating Crack Wings, I instead went for the “Gas,” which is a mix of chicken tenders tossed in one of The Bando’s sauces (I picked BBQ), and the wings.
I went for straight-up lemon pepper — the litmus test of any Atlanta wing spot. They were fried perfectly, albeit a little saltier than I normally prefer, and I’m a pretty salty person in general, no pun intended.
One impressive detail was the fries, which are crinkle-cut, and topped with a Cajun seasoning blend that includes dried herbs. It’s strangely rare that wing spots get their fries right, but The Bando outperformed a lot of nearby competitors who shall remain nameless with their spud sticks.
It’s definitely different to be inside a place that sells food but greets you with trap decor. The appearance definitely seems to conflict with the choice of songs Brandon heard pumping over the loudspeakers when he visited.
“The gospel music threw me off a little when I first walked in, but they were just trying to set the ambiance. I’m sure there was plenty of music with gunshots coming up on the Spotify playlist.”
It’s not all stereotypically negative. There’s a huge mural of Huey, the angry/militant/brilliant star of The Boondocks, who is anything but a bad representation of young Black men. There’s a Rubik’s Cube on the table near the counter, laying half-finished next to a framed photo of The Notorious B.I.G. There are also a collection of vinyl records, cassettes and CDs, including OutKast’s debut album.
But there are also empty bottles of liquor and malt liquor, crime scene tape, and a general sense of disrepair. Crumpled beer cans (some with burn marks), Mason jars with unidentifiable contents, a Crock Pot sitting in a sink, loose Newports laying randomly on tables, and graffiti in every direction.
You can’t call it a dining ambiance anyone would consider “pleasant.”
You’re probably thinking: WTF. Yes, to be fair, this is a lot.
Burk seems to know that The Bando has shock value, but he says there’s a mission for the restaurant that justifies the controversy.
“We wanted to showcase some of the language/terms/slang used in Detroit and Atlanta, so we created different catchy names instead of just saying ‘a 6-piece wing’ or ‘a Coney,’” he says of The Bando’s menu.
He says the idea came about when he and his business partner, Terrence Bradshaw, were brainstorming ways and ideas to generate funds for a school that they aspire to open.
Burk and Bradshaw are former teachers who met at KIPP, and formed a mentoring program for young Black men called Building Better Brothers Academy. Their stated goal is to “create a school unlike any other for the Atlanta community,” and “to take at-risk boys and help mold them into positive young men using a culturally competent curriculum.”
According to their website, profits from The Bando are going towards assisting and mentoring adolescent boys, helping families in need, and building the school.
And by the way, Burk doesn’t see the design concept as negative.
“The Bando changes the food game by simply adding art and culture to food,” he insisted,” allowing individuals to view conceptual art while picking up their food.”
And the fact that it’s in the SWATS, sitting on a street named for Atlanta’s most famous native son, wasn’t going to deter them from the goal.
“We chose this location because we wanted to be located in a neighborhood in our community, serving our people and providing jobs for our people,” he said via text. “The neighborhood has shown us tremendous love.”
And in case you were wondering, no, they are not receiving a notable amount of negative feedback, according to Burk.
“We understand that in life you can’t please everyone, so we listen but we don’t take it to heart.”
We don’t have to go into a conversation around Atlanta’s Black neighborhoods being food deserts when it comes to healthy and nutritious options. I’m not here to judge anybody, and I certainly love wings, so I’m in no position to tell anybody they shouldn’t eat what they want.
And again, it may just be that The Bando’s lemon pepper seasoning is a little salty, which certainly isn’t unusual for wing restaurants. The barbecue sauce was good, and I’ll try another flavor when I stop by again soon. Yes, it was good enough for another visit.
That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the dilemma. Glorifying drug use and drug sales by co-opting something like crack cocaine as a style of seasoning is bold marketing.
It’s especially noteworthy because I’m not sure we’d see something like The Bando in, say, Sandy Springs, Vinings or Buckhead (although Burk says the plan is to open up more locations, perhaps in other states). And if we did, boy oh boy there would probably be some unhappy sentiment coming from the Black community.
When is it OK to use negative aspects of the Black American experience to propel ourselves into higher economic classes? Who gets to sell Crack Wings? And why is this newsworthy?
Because people are talking about The Bando, and there’s a trend of racy marketing going around in this new era of Black restaurateurship and food service. In a city that promotes Black excellence to the business community, we can’t pretend like we don’t accept and celebrate ratchet culture, and assert our rights to continue to forgive parts of our history that we say we’re ready to leave behind.
Sometimes reality is complicated. Sometimes you have to get it how you live. Sometimes you’ve gotta do a little wrong to do right. Anybody who grew up in a Black community has certainly heard at least one of these anecdotes. If they ring unfamiliar, it may be because you or someone in your family never had to find a way out of unlivable situations when nobody was passing out a map.
For the record, I’m not against The Bando. My rule is that if you like it, I love it. I don’t have to understand it or be interested in trying it for myself. And Black people have had to do all sorts of things that may seem questionable to others — and even ourselves at times — until we see that the ends often justify the means. The key is accountability.
Personally, I don’t want to live in a community where a bando, or “abandoned home” for those who don’t know Atlanta slang, is considered the norm. But I also don’t want to abandon a community that has been blighted and left to die for decades.
So yes, if parodying negative aspects of the Black experience helps create solutions, and therefore shines a light on the positive aspects, it’s hard to argue that it’s not worth a try.
Black people around the world have been making lemonade out of lemons since forever. If the next episode is crack wings out of fried chicken and powdered sugar, and as long as we know the reason behind the seasoning, I’d say why not. Surely it’s better to rebuild our communities than abandon them.
“We would say come in and experience The Bando before you judge us,” Burk said before thanking me and getting back to work.