Setting the Bar
The team behind Barcelona presents Port Chester’s bartaco: stylish, mobbed, and oh, so smart.
Look, there are a lot of really bad restaurant concepts out there—I’m going to throw a name out here, Eastchester’s Martinis & Chocolates—so it’s cheering when a new restaurant gets it mostly right. Port Chester’s new bartaco is a suave, streamlined effort by Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer, the partners behind Connecticut’s six Barcelona Wine Bars (there’s also one planned for Atlanta). With bartaco—and its twin, opening in early fall in Stamford—Mahr-Batuz and Pforzheimer manage to extend their Barcelona brand without any internal competition. Though as stylish as Barcelona, bartaco is, in contrast, family-friendly, casual, and bargain-priced. It also manifests an almost perfect understanding of local diners.
Bartaco steps into the industrial building on the Byram that once held Ebb Tide Seafood, whose river frontage is now fully exploited with a full wall of garage-style glass doors. In warm weather, the glass wall will rise to give bartaco truly indoor/outdoor dining. Indoors, the rough-hewn horizontal boards, painted ocean blue and cumulus-cloud white, allude to the beach bars and restaurants that inspired bartaco. Utilitarian fixtures and surfaces—concrete floor, exposed pipe, bare wood—telegraph ease, but style is also dot-dot-dashed in bartaco’s wall photographs, apparently ripped from the pages of Skinny, Young, Rich Magazine. As you sip your Smoky Cholula, you can visualize rubbing bony, tanned shoulders with these impossibly fabulous creatures.
Talking of telegraphed meaning, bartaco is defined by its large bar. Strategically poised at its corners are the large lever-operated citrus juices that are this bar’s boast (and sometimes its downfall). Made perfectly, Gretchen Thomas’s cocktails are stunning (she’s the award-winning wine director of the Barcelona Restaurant Group). Sadly, when the bar is crowded (as it nearly always is), ravenous demand precludes fine-tuning. On one try, a Smoky Cholula (of Sombra mescal, guava nectar, and lemon juice) was one of the most sophisticated cocktails I’d ever tasted; on another visit, it had too much sugar, while yet another proved too acidic—and the same order for the whole table produced mixtures of four totally different hues. Hopefully, in time, bartaco’s bartenders can do these amazing cocktails justice.
Beers (in cans and bottles) offer usual South-of-the-Border suspects, but also include cans of Porkslap Pale Ale (NY), Moo Thunder Stout (NY), and Dale’s Pale Ale (CO). Thomas also oversees bartaco’s wine, and ensures that there are appealing European and South American picks in the $26 to $50 range.
The amazing thing about bartaco’s menu is that it is quite short and laser-focused. There are no real losers among the 12 three-bite tacos ($2.50 each, $7 for three) and quite a few winners. Baja fish tacos—tender corn tortillas holding lightly battered and deep-fried mouthfuls of juicy white catfish—are greaseless and addictive with the crunch of cilantro and mild onion. Chorizo tacos, in contrast, are as oily, porky, and spicy as you like, while tamarind beef offers the sort of succulence of collagen-rich short ribs. Least successful is a fibrous chicken al pastor, or a mushy Thai shrimp—though we loved fatty chicken livers and onions, steaky beef carbon, and pork chili verde. Bartaco’s tabletop sauces—chipotle, verde, and fruity habañero—make for fun sampling (and are available bottled).
One of the charms of bartaco is that the skinny “Winners” of Greenwich and Rye can successfully avoid calories without sparing flavor. Look for excellent crunchy, barely pickled cucumbers (perfect for tweezing into the mouth with strangely off-message chop-sticks); snappy shrimp ceviche; or brightly vegetal pickled carrots, onions, and jalpeños. Bartaco’s garlicky, meltingly tender rotisserie chickens (half $8/whole $14) are the finest example in Westchester, and we fell in love with sides of grilled cactus, red onions, and chili; luxuriously porky beans; and corn with lime, chili, and cotija cheese.
There is no time-consuming sit-and-wait at high-volume bartaco. As soon as they are seated, diners fill order cards and flag their own tables. Be warned: you will be pacing your own meal, so fill out cards only as needed—otherwise your entire dinner will arrive at once.
Bartaco’s design is attractive, but poses some serious challenges to comfort. Some seating is low and loungy, or, in the booths by the bar, tight and tall. Our guests, including a tall and athletic man, could barely fit into the narrow gap between the booth back and table. Meanwhile, his petite wife lost her shoe in the deep well underneath the platform.
Desserts—either bendy churros with chocolate sauce or a trio of excellent gelatos—are smartly truncated in number, all the better to steer lingerers toward bartaco’s long list of 100-percent agave tequilas and mezcals. Those not into the post-8 pm scene (which is marked by throbbing music) might show up in the family-friendly 6 pm slot or simply call for take-out. We, however, have no such compunctions and look forward to our next ringside seat at bartaco.
(Above): At bartaco, diners order by filling out menu cards and pace their own meals. (Opposite page): Seating is stylish, but the comfort level varies.
1 Willett Ave, Port Chester
Hours: 11:30 am to 2 am every day
Tacos and sides: $2.50; “not tacos” (small plates): $3-$9; rice bowls: $9; trays: $22-$33; desserts $3-$6.
★★★★—Outstanding ★★★—Very Good