I was a bit bummed when the Barteca Restaurant Group opted to trade tapas for tacos by moving Bartaco into the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips, not their Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant concept, as was originally intended. Now I'm just bummed I don't live closer to the sprawling beach-themed taquería.
Tennis fan that I am, I suppose Bartaco had me the moment I entered and gandered up at the towering mixed-media artwork depicting such racqueteers as Borg, McEnroe, Noah and Vilas, but the real aces here are Bartaco founders Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz. They twinkle-toed into the old Orlando Ballet School space and opened their 12th taquería "inspired by the beach culture of Brazil, Uruguay and Southern California," and what an inviting and relaxing taquería it is, with signature white shiplapped walls, sand and surf photographs, and blue-and-white cushioned banquettes. Potted ferns and plants on the patio make a pleasing vegetative barrier between the restaurant and the busy parking lot, and accomplish the difficult task of creating ambience by mentally whitewashing the restaurant's strip-mall location.
What I'm not a fan of, however, is the ordering process. Once seated, patrons are expected to pencil in selections on a menu scorecard of sorts, then place the card in a holder on their table for a server to pick up. Now if a server (like our exuberant and knowledgeable one) is coming by the table anyway, why not just save the whole wasteful card nonsense and have the server take your order? An effort to play up Bartaco's casual mien, perhaps? Didn't really make any sense to us. Another peeve: The menu doesn't list descriptions, but our palates, along with the help of our ever-present waitress, helped fill those gaps. Tacos ($2.50-$3.50 each) are the natural star attractions, and none more so than stellar duck confit smeared with tamarind glaze on a 4-inch corn tortilla. Yes, the tacos are on the smaller side, but the little bundles of rotisseried pork pastor, piquant Argentinean chorizo and spicy tempura-battered cod pack a flavor wallop. After four of these delightful little pockets, we were duly impressed – even more so after downing one laid with perfectly grilled shrimp and pickled "banh mi" veggies.
"This is like rich people's Chipotle," whispered my dining comrade as he sipped his stiff cocktail, and I could see his point after biting into a taco filled with soy-, sesame- and sriracha-marinated Angus ribeye topped with kimchi, and another of fried oysters in a classic remoulade. The latter, like the crispless falafel- and tzatziki-filled taco, weren't exactly my faves – the thick sauces lent a mealy texture, and the delicate tortillas all but disintegrated under the weight.
But apart from those, to use a tennis term, mis-hits, the kitchen appeared to be in the swing of things. Even kicked-up and creamy guac ($5 small; $9 large) served with tostada shells made a faultless accompaniment, as did grilled corn ($2.50) rolled in lime, cayenne and cotija. And I say this even after niblet juice splattered into my eye after biting into the cob. Other sides, like fresh pineapple with lime ($2.50) and spicy cucumber salad ($2.50), made bold contrasts to meaty tacos.
Things ended somewhat anticlimactically as neither postre – doughy churros ($7) with chocolate sauce, or more-sweet-than-tart Key lime pie in a jar ($6) – particularly wowed, but it didn't seem to matter. We left content, plotting our eventual return. You might say we left feeling, well, just beachy.