Restaurant review: Top-shelf tacos at bartaco

A carefree aura and thrilling flavors drive Hyde Park's bartaco.

click to enlarge At bartaco, folks fill out a card, sushi bar-style, with what they'd like to order. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
At bartaco, folks fill out a card, sushi bar-style, with what they'd like to order.

Consistency is the restaurant world’s bête noire. It’s no small feat making sure that your supply chains always deliver quality ingredients, or having a cadre of line cooks who can nail each dish every time. Ditto for mixologists behind the bar. What about assuring that servers can seamlessly deliver hot food and cold drinks in the midst of what often seems like chaos? A successful restaurant requires vision, capital and juggling skills that would challenge the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

When entrepreneurs figure out a winning formula, there’s often pressure to expand, and consistency evaporates. That’s why the best restaurants are distinct, and chains, however small, inevitably see a dip from true excellence. So, when I bring my comrades to Hyde Park Village and walk past Best of the Bay winners Piquant and Wine Exchange to check out bartaco, the retail center’s newest tenant, my expectations are in check.

The new local branch is the ninth in a rapidly expanding empire helmed by partners Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer. What began in Port Chester, New York, then expanded to Connecticut, the D.C. suburbs, and three locations in Atlanta has settled on the pointy end of a triangular building fronting West Snow Avenue. In keeping with Mahr-Batuz’s vision of open-air informality with the light, breezy air of a contemporary Mexican beach resort, bartaco has, count ’em, five garage doors ready to rise as the temps descend. When that sweet spot of Florida weather arrives, bartaco will barely have walls on two sides.

There’s an aura of fun inside, with hanging basket lights that might as well have been plucked from the Caribbean, plus a crisp, clean interior of blue and white. The walls are also showcases for striking oversize prints of Mahr-Batuz’s beach-themed photographs. The dining is seriously relaxed, and the laser-focused menu encourages diners to sample an array of bites, which arrive on small, paper-lined metal trays in lieu of plates.

If you’re in the mood to sample a variety of tastes, the restaurant offers two splendid chef’s tray samplers that are real bargains. When this breathtaking assortment of land and sea creations with delicious flavors come to the table, all I can think of is that there are enough tacos made by “good Mexicans” to wall off Donald Trump. The large tray features a thrilling selection of nine tacos made with soft 4-inch tortillas, two tamales wrapped in warm corn husks, three sides, and a creamy bowl of no-frills, super-fresh guacamole with whole crisp corn tortillas. The chunky guac has no tomatoes and little garlic, but it’s still satisfying.

The tasty tacos run the gamut: Baja fish with flash-fried cod, lightly dressed slaw and fresh cilantro; luscious pork belly; picante chicken; spicy chorizo (that’s milder than the poultry); portobello mushroom with queso fresco; and a zesty cauliflower-nut amalgam.

The upper-tier tacos, costing $1 more, include wild boar, mahi mahi and sesame ribeye with tangy kimchi.

click to enlarge An exterior view of the new Hyde Park Village restaurant concept. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
An exterior view of the new Hyde Park Village restaurant concept.

There’s plenty of spice in the tacos as served, but if you’re inclined to kick things up a notch, there are three terrific sauces at the table, which are also available to take home. Choose from salsa verde with cucumber and jalapeño, hot papaya and habanero, and a roja with tomatoes and chipotle.

The tray’s less-spicy tamales — pork and a mushroom-mole combo — are traditional masa harina, wrapped and steamed in corn husks. Our sides burst with flavor as well. Mexican street corn lightly charred, drizzled with lime and dusted with cayenne and cotija cheese (the kitchen will cut it off the cob to share), sweet plantains with garlic-cilantro aioli, black beans stewed with pork, and sliced cucumber salad, spicy and crisp.

As its name implies, bartaco also stresses craft cocktails. In an interview from the restaurant’s website, Mahr-Batuz emphasizes a commitment to first-class spirits, freshly squeezed-to-order juices, high-quality ice, and great glassware, emblazoned with the etched dragonfly logo. But the other essential ingredient is Gretchen Thomas, bartaco’s award-winning beverage czar, because she’s also passing on a culture of attention to detail.

We sample four of the spot’s best and enjoy them immensely. The “port chester reviver,” named for the first location, is a particular triumph of bright flavors. It highlights Martin Miller’s Gin, cucumber, mint, mango nectar and lime juice.

The desserts are prepared with equal care. Three fresh-fried churros are warm and picture perfect, even without the hot fudge sauce that makes dipping fun. bartaco also follows the mason jar trend with a scrumptious spiced chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream and crunchy hazelnuts. The restaurant also offers a four-cone collection of artisan gelato. We show a modicum of restraint, sharing just a generous scoop of the delicious coconut flavor.

Our evening ends on a delightful note, and I’m forced to reconsider the skepticism with which I entered. Every aspect of this meal hits high marks. We exit into the lovely night happier than a group of rabid presidential candidates eating their own over the immigration conundrum.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
Scroll to read more Food News articles
Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected]