[FULL DISCLOSURE: the folks at bartaco kindly invited us to a press dinner two Thursdays ago as we are great fans of its sister restaurant Barcelona (and in particular the Barcelona cookbook) so this is not a review as much as a recounting of the experience from both our perspectives.]
Elizabeth: Living in New York introduced me to the traditional taqueria via La Esquina in SoHo and a local spot that is a favorite takeout option on Friday evenings and more importantly, introduced me to exotic tacos made with variety meats such as tripe and tongue. Those have become my absolute favorite ones to eat, so when the invite to bartaco came into the inbox I immediately went to their website to see if the menu boasted any interesting tacos. Seeing tongue and veal cheeks among the options, I knew I wanted to give them a try. It’s the true test of a taqueria: if they make their offal tacos well, you know you’ve found a quality spot.
I met Michael in Port Chester after work two Thursdays ago (M, pobrecito, was forced to wait outside for 40 minutes because my train from Stamford was slow and the Port Chester station was closed. At 6 o’clock! What gives?) and we hoofed it over to the restaurant, getting a little lost along the way but we ended up getting there in two very cold pieces. We were quickly greeted, coats were divested and two traditional bartaco margaritas were offered to us.
As circulation resumed to our feet we took in the scene; meant to look like a weather-worn beach shack with its white and blue wooden walls, my first thought was how pleasant this place would be in the actual summertime with the windows open and the sun streaming in through the windows. The blue and white motif carried throughout the room, going so far as the waitstaff all bedecked in blue and white plaid shirts.
Chatting with a few people, we snacked on their guacamole (plates of it were scattered on the bar tables, served with full hard taco shells to break off and dip into it) and sipped on our drinks. The guac was, as expected, very tasty, though perhaps a tiny bit difficult to elegantly scoop up due to the size of the chunks of avocado–but that could have simply been me awkwardly trying to dive into it. The margaritas were definitely not too strong, nor
too sweet, and we learned later that all of the citrus juices are squeezed to order, ensuring that every drink you get is the freshest it could possibly be. Our waiter then offered to get us something “special”–he didn’t say what it would be, but only that it would have tequila. The resulting drink that appeared when we had sat down for the tequila tasting was quite delicious–something akin to a tequila-laced sidecar–but I still don’t know what all was in it. But that’s part of the fun, right?
It was soon time to be ushered into the dining room for dinner and the tequila tasting, and we ended up sitting with some local writers, including one who years ago wrote for Penthouse. The beverage director walked us through a brief Tequila 101 as we tasted a delicious blanco (silver tequila), then a reposado (“rested” tequila that is found in oak barrels but not extremely aged) and finally an anejo that had delicious notes of flavor similar to bourbon. It was to her credit that she managed to get us to listen to the entire tasting, because shortly thereafter the food appeared on our tables: gorditas, a simple salad that was extremely refreshing…and then the tacos.
Michael: What I recall most vividly about our night at bartaco was the hospitality. Sitting at a large table being served plate after plate of food, talking and sharing food with strangers, toasting and chatting all reminded me of a huge, idealized family dinner. The openers were fantastic, but apparently, my purview is commenting upon tacos, and so let’s get to it.
We began with large dishes of Thai shrimp and Baja fish tacos. I’m not a huge fan of shrimp tacos, but these were delightful, full of flavor and heft. The fish tacos were also very good, but certainly no different than others I’ve had or even made. The next round were chorizo as well as roasted pork tacos. The former were what you’d expect, diced chorizo in a tortilla while the latter were by far my favorite offering of the entire evening. The pork was tasty, juicy and so satisfying I wanted to buy a picnic shoulder and roast my own the very next day so I could eat obscene amounts without the social stigmas of gorging on fistfulls of pig in front of strangers. The last set were veal cheek and beef tongue, both were good and again, what any denizen of an awesome, authentic taqueria would expect. They definitely reminded me of my favorite taqueria on Amsterdam. The only low point of the dinner course was a tray of tamales served between the 2nd and 3rd group of tacos. I’m not a fan in general, but these were a bit plain and forgettable and they didn’t really fit in with the progression of food we were served. Still, the food was tasty and chill, just like the drinks and the atmosphere. As I said, I will probably try my hand at the pork tacos soon, so stay tuned.
Elizabeth: Michael may have enjoyed the pork tacos, but I was emphatically in favor of the veal cheek variety; rich but not with a gamy flavor, if you were given this to eat without any sort of description of what it was you’d have no idea that you were eating offal, which is how it should be.
None of the tacos are very large because they are meant to be ordered as part of a sampling platter: you mark down on the menus provided how many of each you’d like, and the waiters will bring you what you want as you want it, which means you could easily spend a whole evening with a group of friends sampling food and sipping on cocktails and wine, well into the wee hours as bartaco is open until 4AM. The ambiance certainly encourages that, from the wooden benches made much more comfortable with plump pillows to the promise of live music on weekends, to the overall much more relaxed and air that the staff hopes to convey. Whereas Barcelona is a bit more glamorous and formal, bartaco is casual and a little rumpled–and from what we’ve seen, the teams at both restaurants (we only really know the New Haven Barcelona location) are pretty flawless in both of those executions.
Despite it not being in the city, bartaco is surprisingly convenient to get to with its proximity to the Port Chester train station, making it an ideal place to get a dash of summer. Considering that we’ve gotten snow at least once a week so far in 2011, something tells me that we’ll be heading there sooner rather than later to do just that.