My family enjoys eating together, but they aren’t the most adventurous when it comes to food options. As a result, we rotate a few staple restaurants for special occasions, takeout days and family meals out. We also enjoy walking around after a meal, so restaurants in nice malls or downtown areas are a plus. To those who have frequented it, it’s no surprise that we often visit downtown West Hartford. When we’re actually able to snag a table, the coastal-themed bartaco is one of our favorites. Despite operating various locations across the country, the chain doesn’t fall prey to criticisms of inconsistent quality or mediocre experiences. In fact, I’ve heard mostly good things about the restaurant, which my family and I mostly agree with, except with some concerns about service, which I will address. Since we ate at bartaco for my eldest sister’s birthday last night, and I haven’t dedicated a Hollieats entry to the restaurant yet, I figured I’ll provide a rundown on this unique establishment.
Bartaco’s aesthetic is fairly ambiguous — they market their cuisine as “upscale street food,” but what does that mean? Despite the amount of times I’ve been there, I cannot truly identify nor articulate the chain’s target clientele. I’ve visited both Connecticut locations, West Hartford and Westport, for both lunch and dinner, and they seem to attract similar crowds at any time of the day. I’ve seen families with younger children, groups of friends dressed up for a night on the town and colleagues grabbing drinks at the bar. On the menu, the sections dedicated to kids’ meals and specialty cocktails reflect this versatility in age range. In terms of ambiance, bartaco seems to welcome groups dressed for chic celebrations, couples looking for a casual date night and friends catching up. The combination of dimmed lights, tealight candles, polished wood tables and seating, wicker baskets, cool music and blue plaid-clad staff strikes the perfect balance of classy beach vibes, which allows for bartaco to accommodate occasions from the casual to more formal.
The menu selection — tacos, rice bowls and as charmingly referred to on the menu, “not tacos” — is interesting and well-crafted, while still being approachable but not boring. Bartaco incorporates fun twists and flavors in their foods with a variety of quality ingredients. The restaurant keeps the menu fresh with a monthly #bartacosecret announced on their social media that is usually a special taco, but has sometimes been a special drink. The taco may have been on the permanent menu but then removed, like the mojo pork carnitas taco, or seasonal, like the soft shell crab or lobster tacos. It’s disappointing when a favorite taco gets relegated to #bartacosecret status, however, it’s exciting when they roll out a flavor you haven’t tried before.
Bartaco’s ambiguous aesthetic somewhat continues in the menu; chips and salsa, tacos and margaritas definitely seem Mexican-inspired. However, the sesame ribeye taco with kimchi is certainly Korean-inspired, the tuna takato taco (when it’s available) features seared tuna reminiscent of sushi and they serve their rice bowls with chopsticks. The restaurant doesn’t necessarily claim a certain particular inspiration, so that leaves the door open for creations like Asian fusion.
As expected, the tacos are the star of the show. They have an interesting selection ranging from more traditional flavors like seared chorizo and spicy chicken verde to food trendy options like crispy avocado and falafel. I recommend the glazed pork belly, Baja fish, crispy oyster and carnitas, if available. These choices all feature flavorful, succulent meat (or seafood) with refreshing slaws and sauces to top them off. For vegetarian options, the falafel is hearty and flavorful, but I think the avocado sounds yummier than it is — in short, it’s bland.
As for not-tacos, the rice bowls are filling and feature the same delicious ingredients in the counterpart taco. I personally prefer ordering tacos so you have more of a selection, but a rice bowl is a good option if you want to stick to one dish. A new not-taco favorite is the duck birria quesadilla, which joined the menu last year. The quesadilla is crisp and cheesy with tender duck meat, and the birria broth is rich. Overall, it’s a good option to share with the rest of your party if you want to order other things as well.
All of the drinks I’ve tried at bartaco are well balanced between alcohol and fillers, making for a drink that’s a decent strength but still flavorful. They make a great classic margarita (don’t forget the salt), but if you want to try a cocktail, I highly recommend the refreshing reviver with gin, cucumber, mango nectar, mint and lime juice.
Don’t forget to finish off your meal with the perfectly fried churros, fluffy on the inside and crisp on the outside, served with a rich chocolate dipping sauce.
Behind the food, the bustling restaurant is always fun to frequent, but its popularity has its downfalls. Especially during the summer season and regular meal times on the weekends. Bartaco is notoriously busy, garnering wait times of two and a half hours on some days. Expect at least an hour wait if your party is four people or more. However, bartaco doesn’t allow you to reserve in advance. Joining the waitlist through the app or online is your only option to snag a table at a reasonable time, and apparently you must be only 30 minutes away to do so, or your spot will be forfeited if your name is next on the list. And even if you get on the list, you’re guaranteed at least some wait when you get there. This makes it a bit difficult to plan to eat bartaco for a special occasion. However, if you like it enough, it’s still worth putting your name on the list, and you can wait for a text while you walk around the cosmopolitan downtowns of West Hartford and Westport.
A former West Hartford local enjoys a particular quirk of the restaurant.
“Most underrated part of bartaco — the best thing they have is the part on the bathroom door that lets you open it with your foot,” Dan Murray, CLAS ‘08, said, appreciating how you don’t need to open the bathroom door with newly washed hands when you exit. “Also not as impressive, at the bar, they have that fancy lime squeezer that’s like four feet tall.”