971 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, (860) 586-TACO, bartaco.com
When I say that the portions at Bartaco are small, I mean it as praise. (The taco prices are low, too!) I'm of the opinion that most restaurants serve us way too much food. Being a member of the clean-plate club, and not counting self-control and appetite-suppression as one of my strong suits, I'm always thankful when a restaurant can serve me delicious food without leaving me overstuffed. Don't get me wrong: I don't want to pay more for less; I want to pay less for less. That's one of many things to like about Bartaco, the relatively new taco spot in West Hartford Center.
Mexican cuisine and boutique tacos have been ascendant on the American food scene for quite a while. But even with that nudge of popular energy, the rise of the taqueria can not compete with the never-ending spread of the fancy-pants burger joint. If someone were to pass a law requiring that for every two spiffy new hamburger restaurants someone else had to open a taco place, I'd be behind it. (Just kidding, I'm mostly libertarian on such matters, but still.)
The West Hartford Bartaco, next door to Barcelona and just up the street from Grants, is the third in a string of Bartacos (with other locations in Stamford, and Port Chester, N.Y.) And the people behind this eatery know what they're doing. There's a subtle surf-bum, sun-and-leisure vibe to the place. The overall feel is more casual, clean and smart than slacker-y or bro-ish. Huge pictures hang on the wall, like blown-up vintage Polaroids from some hazy tropical beach vacation. The open-and-closeable garage-door-style glass front to the restaurant makes for a festive and open-air feel when the weather is nice (like, maybe nine months from now).
The wooden booths are cool, with that sun-bleached feel, and they sit just high enough off the ground to make you feel like a kid at a beach stool, with your feet dangling right above the floor. Funky basket-like light fixtures hang from the ceiling. And the music selection is very good: they were cranking deep cuts from classic Jimi Hendrix and Talking Heads albums when I stopped in for lunch at Bartaco recently.
Our waiter gave us a little tutorial on the system of cards and check-menus that they use, but it's really simple: you mark off what you want on tiny menu lists (a little like ordering sushi), and if you want attention from the staff — more chips, a refill, to place a third taco order — you slide these little colored cards into a small stand at your table. It's a pretty good innovation, one that other places should employ. Instead of having to catch the attention of the waiter, always looking out of one corner of your eye while trying to have a conversation, just because you want to order a beer, this puts the burden of service and attentiveness onto the staff, which is where it should be.
The tacos are the focus here. Bartaco serves over a dozen types, including fish, tripe, pork belly, chorizo, lamb, cactus pad, thai shrimp and more. With the exception of the lobster tacos, which are $6.50, all tacos are $2.50 each, or three for $7. That's a pretty good bargain. But, like I said, these are dainty little tacos, much more like the simple, small things you actually find in Mexico than like the blown-out over-stuffed super-sized versions that we've come to expect in the U.S.
Rotisserie chicken, tamales, gorditas, quesadillas, ceviche and sides like corn, slaw and plantains are also on the menu.
The tacos were tasty, served in warm, and slightly nutty soft corn tortillas. They come, as they should, with a wedge of lime on the side and topped with chopped onion and cilantro. Chorizo, lamb and pork al pastor were suitably deep flavored, and they were all dialed up to tongue-scorching levels with the application of a fruity but fiery habanero salsa. Bartaco also has a tangy tomatillo salsa and a pleasingly smoky chipotle variety. A fish taco had thin strips of cabbage to add crunch. One note: the chopped cilantro that was sprinkled on to several of the tacos looked slightly wan. Another observation: the tables were without salt and pepper shakers, which is a great way to demonstrate that the kitchen is confident in its hand with seasoning, but our guacamole would have been brightened up by another dash or two of salt — so not having access to it wasn't so great in this case.
When you do come to the end of your meal, consider having, as we did, an order of chorros ($7). This is basically a stick-like Mexican version of fried dough/cinnamon donuts served with a hot, thick and slightly spicy chocolate dipping sauce.
Bartaco, as I think the name may suggest, has as much appeal as a place to grab drinks as it does as an eatery. That is, in part, because those little super-affordable tacos are ideal drinking food. The drinks though, it must be noted, are not as easy on the wallet as the nibbles. A house margarita is $9.50. A can of Dale's Pale Ale is $7. A bottle of Mexican Coke (sweetened with cane sugar juice instead of corn syrup) is $3.50.
Those booze prices may shape your decision about whether Bartaco will become your local waterhole, but there's no reason this likeable eatery shouldn't be your go-to taco destination in West Hartford center.