Bartaco Unveils New Cocktails, New Tacos & #bartacosecret: Gretchen Thomas Tells All

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

Tacos.  And cocktails.  A bar.  Where people can have tacos.  Bar.  Tacos.  Bartaco!

It seems simple, but the concept is, admittedly, brilliant.  Barteca, the restaurant group behind Barcelona, saw the potential in the combination and launched Bartaco in 2010.  Inspired by Brazilian beach culture, they opened their flagship location in Port Chester, NY.  Popularity followed and they began expanding.  Today, Bartaco has 3 Connecticut locations: Stamford, West Hartford, and Westport.  They have also received national acclaim, with restaurants opening in Nashville, Tennessee; Tampa; Florida; Reston; Virginia, and three in Atlanta, Georgia.

On Wednesday March 23, CTBites was invited to participate in a blogger’s event featuring Bartaco’s newest cocktails and a selection of menu items.  Barteca’s Wine and Spirits Director, Gretchen Thomas, led us through a tasting of three of her latest drinks and provided insights about the “bar” component of Bartaco.

Thomas has a great deal of experience in the restaurant industry, as well as an extensive career with Barteca Restaurant Group.

“This month is my 10 year anniversary with Barteca!” she told us.  “When I started, it was much different.  There were only four Barcelonas.  Bartaco didn’t exist.”

Gretchen completely transformed Barcelona’s wine list, making it the dynamic Spanish program that it is today.  Though wine is Gretchen’s specialty, she became an expert in the cocktail realm when Bartaco made its debut.

“At that time, it was anything ‘tini.’ Anything ‘rita,” she explains.

Barteca CEO Andy Pforzheimer envisioned something different.  He imagined serving the “world’s best margarita,” superior tequilas, and distinctive cocktails.  Thomas rose to the challenge.

“I literally filled my house with booze,” she recalls.  “I went to craft cocktail bars in New York City to see what they were doing.  It was osmosis.  Lots of trial and error.”  When the Port Chester location opened, she tasted 400 tequilas.  Ultimately, she narrowed that down to 50.  Although storage is a significant factor, quality is the major reason for the limited list.  Everything Bartaco serves consists of 100% agave.

In addition to the tequila, Bartaco uses deliberate, fine-tuned techniques to elevate their drinks.  For example, all of the lime juice is squeezed to order.  That ensures that the citrus’s oil is extracted from the lime’s skin and makes its way into the glass.  In addition, Bartaco invests in cold draft ice.  Their machine, the most expensive piece of equipment in the restaurant, creates solid cubes of ice.  They last a long time, which means that they barely dilute the drinks.

We had the chance to witness these practices at work with a delicious line-up of three cocktails: the Red Sonja, the Port chester Reviver, and the Old Thymer.  Recent additions to the list, they were also chosen because they represent the impressive range of spirits and styles on Bartaco’s menu.

“The Red Sonja is my personal favorite drink at the moment,” Thomas told us.  She named it after the 1980s movie Red Sonja.  She explained that the film hinges on a warrior princess from outer space.

“She was very feisty… spicy,” says Thomas.  “And that’s how I saw the drink.”  The Red Sonja includes Olmeca Altos reposado tequila, byrhg quinquina, ginger, jalapeno, lemon juice, and bitters.  True to its name, it took on a pinky-red hue in the glass where it was garnished with a lemon slice.  I immediately loved it, and it went on to be my favorite drink of the night.  Its bright citrus flavors were met with spiciness from the pepper and earthiness from the tequila.  All of the notes together made for a uniquely delicious blend.

Next, we moved to the Port Chester Reviver.  This drink ranks most popular after the signature margarita.  It varies markedly from the Red Sonja because it uses gin.  I was skeptical about the gin base, but it turned out to be approachable, refreshing, and light.  Its cucumber, mint, mango nectar, and lime juice made it taste like “salad in a glass.”  With its green color and bright flavors, I could see myself sipping this outdoors in the summer.

The final cocktail of the evening was the “Old Thymer.”  Once more, we tasted something totally different: a bourbon based beverage.

“It’s in between a whiskey sour and a Manhattan,” Thomas told us.  Orange and lemon are muddled to get all the oil from the skin.

To me, this was the sweetest of the three and also the one with the strongest flavors.  The sweetness from the fruit intermingled with the toasty notes from the bourbon.

Bartaco has added several new members to its team.  They are young, energetic, and dynamic: well-versed in the world of social media, attuned to the latest trends, and unafraid to try out new ideas.  It seems fitting that Bartaco unveiled a new hashtag, #bartacosecret, along with a mysterious off-the-menu taco.  The hashtag has been trending- even celebrities like Hailee Duff have gotten in on the action!

About once a month, Bartaco tasks its chefs with coming up with a special taco.  The chefs submit their ideas and one is chosen to serve as the “secret taco.”  They’ve offered a wild boar version and more recently a shrimp banh mi taco.  The shrimp proved so popular that they added it to the actual menu.  We had the chance to taste it.  It was a cool mash-up of Vietnamese and South American street food.  It comes with sriracha tofu sauce and pickled veggies.

Bartaco gave us the exciting opportunity to be the first ones to taste their upcoming installation of the secret taco: fried avocado!  I loved the concept.  Avocado is a staple in this kind of cuisine, but it usually serves as an accompaniment rather than the central ingredient.  Frying it was a fun twist as well.  I enjoyed how the creamy avocado texture played off the crunchy, fried surface.

The pork belly taco was another highlight of the evening.  The fatty, small pieces of pork belly played nicely against the soft tortilla and spicy arbol chili sauce.  The palm-sized taco could be eaten in two bites, making for a perfectly sized dose of decadence.

Whether you’re in it for the “bar” or the “taco,” Bartaco is certainly the place to be.  Be sure to follow their social media accounts and use the hashtag #bartacosecret to uncover all of the delicious (even top secret!) details.