A laid-back beach bar has washed up on Farmington Avenue, right in the middle of West Hartford Center, and, no, it is has nothing to do with global warming and shifting tides. It is the latest culinary endeavor from owners Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer.
Bartaco opened its doors for business last week after months of renovation in a space that previously housed a maternity clothing store. And while the two restaurants were conceived by the same owners, they have decidedly different personalities: think sea-sprayed Acapulco-bronzed and bleached beach-bum little brother to Barcelona’s established, elegant European sybaritic sophistication.
It was noon on Wednesday, Aug. 1, and people walking on Farmington Avenue peering into the restaurant would never have guessed that food would be served within hours. The only sign of life appeared to be a few workmen and staff members.
Barcelona corporate headquarters courts no pre-publicity for its new restaurants, so there had been no specific time set for Bartaco’s debut. By mid-afternoon, tables were being set on the outdoor patio and the staff was assembled, waiting for the diners who noticed the open doors. Obviously, this was going to be the softest of openings; quiet and under the radar, just as the owners had done with their previous Bartaco openings in Stamford and just over the New York border in Port Chester.
Just after the opening, on a dry, sunny evening, the word had spread and the patio was full of customers. The snappy wait staff, casually attired in checked shirts and white pants, were eagerly explaining the menu and the ordering protocol.
Bartaco’s cuisine has been described by its owners as “upscale Mexican street food” and there are tacos, tamales, and chips and guacamole on the menu. Yet the dishes incorporate pan-Latin influences and represent ever-evolving fusion styles of cooking, components and preparation previous generations would never have expected to encounter in West Hartford.
This is not your bachelor uncle's Tex-Mex menu by any stretch. While there are tacos, Bartaco's are small, elegant, soft pancakes adorned with fresh cilantro and a plump, tart lime wedge. Fillings include chorizo, fish, beef, chicken, lamb, duck, portobello mushroom, and the current foodie's prized prestige ingredient of choice, pork belly.
There are tamales with traditional fillings, made from masa, as well as gorditas, which are fried corn-meal nuggets flavored with chorizo and/or cheese. There are rice bowls topped with meats or fish and a small crown of vegetables. The ceviches are served tossed with slivers of red onion and lively multi-colored peppers. Salads are also presented.
Each table comes with three different sauces in progressive degrees of spiciness: salsa verde, salsa roja, and a Habañero sauce the color of sunshine. It will bring life and heat to the table no matter the weather, the time of day or the season. The sauces accompany the smaller plates that are ordered to be served family style; patrons post a dragonfly card high on their tables as a signal to the wait staff that more food should be brought.
Inside, the restaurant is designed with a casual, cool interior. Concrete floors, white-washed plank walls, exposed truss work, sturdy wood-stained booths and rattan lighting fixtures define the tropical setting. A prominent square bar area holds court in the center with a premier cocktail list of special and unique liquors.
Other design elements, such as chrome bar fixtures and a cooler case in the back purveying glass-bottled sodas, powerfully evoke a return to an easier, more leisurely era, when beach vacations were both casual and a little exotic, somewhat untouched by time and our pace.
For those who want to bring the experience with them, Bartaco's entire menu can be taken out — but they're also planning to offer "home" taco bars, catering parties set up to bring sunshine and the savory delights in your own living room.
Bartaco restaurant is located at 971 Farmington Avenue in West Hartford. For further information phone: 860-586-TACO or go to their website: bartaco.com