Pardon me while I do a little math. Carry the two; now add these two together. Okay, I've got it: I've reviewed approximately 3,604 restaurants.
So when I'm sitting at a new place and my eyebrows hike high and I find myself saying, "Well, haven't seen that before," I get a little excited. Bartaco: eyebrows way up. Opened at the beginning of July in Hyde Park Village, the eighth location of this Connecticut-based chain is doing so many interesting things simultaneously.
First, it's the way the food menu marries with the bar menu: Food is super affordable, tacos all $2.50 or $3.50, with sides that complete the deal for another $2.50. Then on the bar side, you've got come-hither Latin-inspired cocktails that skitter north of $11. So there's this diner cognitive dissonance — "this is cheap" and "wait, I shouldn't have another chorizo spice-infused margarita, but I want to."
And second, the ordering process is fascinating and really seems to work. Built on the sushi bar idiom, each table has a little ordering chit. You make check marks, or if you're anal like me, carefully penciled numbers next to each taco or "not taco" item (my roasted cauliflower taco topped with zingy romesco and toasted almonds should have had a 3 next to it, not a 2, but I didn't want to make crossouts). Then, when your table has filled out its chit, you pop the blue dragonfly card into the metal holder and a server swings by. Need a new drink? Dragonfly card. Just need to see how swiftly a waiter will notice? Dragonfly card. The answer, by the way, is almost immediately.
Located in the space that housed the long-defunct Cactus Club, Bartaco (really, it's all lowercase, but newspapers refrain from getting too E.E. Cummings) is a harbinger of all the excitement yet to come in Hyde Park Village. There's Richard Gonzmart's Goody Goody, Rene Valenzuela's Taco Bus and Chris Ponte's On Swann, but based on a couple of recent visits, South Tampa is apoplectic with enthusiasm already. The place — all long U-shaped bar, rustic inverted basket lamps and crisp nautical white-and-navy patio furniture — is packed. Who are all these glamorous young people and why are they wearing such stylish footwear in the middle of summer?
You have to choose. Loud and inside or outside and humid? Either way, you're going to have fun. The service staff is excellent, and I'm not just saying that because one nice bartender handed us four round wooden tokens, emblazoned with the dragonfly and good for free tacos, because it was our first visit.
Once beveraged (see: Pisc-eau Sour, $11; spicy Humo Y Fuego with jalapeno and muddled tomatillo, $13; or the not-too-sweet house sangria, $8.50), a shared platter approach is the way to go. The only slightly weird part is that food arrives on a big paper-lined aluminum tray and you each get your own smaller paper-lined aluminum trays. If you're trying to eat brown rice topped with a spoonful of pork-studded stewed black beans, say, it's awkward to eat saucy stuff off the paper. A quibble.
Chips are whole fried corn tortilla rounds, which you snap off into shards and dip into the lively green salsa ($3) or clearly-just-made chunky guac ($5 and $9). Bartaco is resoundingly vegetarian friendly, with the aforementioned cauliflower taco (remember, order three), a sauteed portobello one with fluffs of queso fresco and an interesting cigar-shaped falafel taco (all $2.50).
On the non-veg side, the fried oyster taco rocked, crunchy and tender-centered and briny-fresh, as did the sesame ribeye, both $3.50, and the fried Baja-style fish taco (we were told it was snapper, very tasty) and plush pork belly with a tangle of pickled red onion were runnerup tacos (both $2.50). Grilled corn encrusted with cotija cheese, a sprinkle of cayenne and a big squeeze of lime ($2.50) is going to wreak havoc on your teeth, but if you've got a Mona Lisa smile, it's worth it. And the spicy cuke salad and subtle-but-crunchy chipotle slaw (both $2.50) are admirable foils for your (3) cauliflower tacos.
With 12 taco fillings and 40 tequilas, Bartaco could be self-important, but it's not. The tall metal citrus juicers are pumping constantly, hostesses whirl around the room grabbing folks when tables are ready (no reservations, but they text you when you're on deck), and the restaurant exudes a frenzied conviviality. The frenzy may pipe down over time, but Bartaco's 'viv seems built in.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.