Walking into Carlito’s Wine House, if you feel transported to another place then Luis and Mercedes Betancourt will be happy. Inspired by their love of wine and the Texas Hill Country, the couple designed their downtown Harlingen business as a getaway from life’s daily grind.
Just inside the door there is a traditional bar with stools, but much of the space is appointed with comfortable sofas and chairs grouped around heavy wood coffee tables like they might be arranged in someone’s living room. Small tables made from wine barrels with stools in one corner offer a different type of seating. The brick décor on the walls is intended to create an atmosphere reflective of the Hill Country.
“The whole idea came from our love of wine and our love for the Hill Country,” Luis said. “You’re kind of walking out of Harlingen when you come in. You are walking into another place, wherever it takes you.” Mercedes added that the design concept is intended to “feel like home.”
Luis comes from an advertising background while Mercedes worked in finance and banking. Almost three years ago they rolled the dice and opened a new chapter in their lives with Carlito’s, and they began to see success from the beginning. “We honestly thought it was going to be a small venture, a place to relax,” Luis said. “But it’s been anything but. It gets packed in here on the weekends.”
As with most new business ventures the first year was difficult and challenging. At first Carlito’s was open seven days a week as early as 11 a.m. and served lunch. “It took 30 days to realize that we were just exhausted,” Luis said. “We quickly learned we are not a sports bar so it made no sense to open on Sundays.” Mondays were the slowest, so they shifted to their current schedule of Tuesday through Saturday.
Lunch also went by the wayside in the early days. Mercedes, who did all the cooking at that time, said the lunch crowd was good but the place was dead in the early afternoon hours. Today Carlito’s opens at 3 p.m., and serves a limited menu that consists of signature dishes and appetizers. “I still do the cooking,” Mercedes said. “In the beginning I lived in the kitchen. Now I am the backup cook.”
But customers will not find typical bar food like chicken wings and onion rings. The menu boasts appetizers like spinach artichoke dip and cheese platters. Salads, a selection of sandwiches and flatbread pizzas, desserts and snacks round out the food offerings.
And Carlito’s is anything but a typical bar, as well, specializing in wine and craft beers. Some 65 to 70 wine varieties are kept in stock at any given time. And while some domestic beers are available, the Betancourts are proud of their craft beer selection, including serving exclusively craft beers on tap.
Wines are a mix of name brands most wine lovers would recognize, but Carlito’s also features boutique wines from California and around the world. “We do have some off-the-wall wines people have never heard of,” Luis said.
At this point the Betancourts are enjoying the fruits of their labor, but they also look forward to new challenges. “This might not have worked if we had not made the changes in our lives,” Mercedes said about their decision to leave successful careers to gamble on a dream. “It was very scary our first year,” Luis said. “Now it feels good.”
But they do not want to get too comfortable as they think about the future. “If your dreams don’t scare you, then they are not big enough” is an old saying that inspires the couple. Ideas for the future include opening another location somewhere in the Valley or moving to a larger space and adding an outdoor patio area.
But don’t look for any big changes soon. Luis and Mercedes plan to wait until Carlito’s has been open five years, then they will assess where they are and where they want to go.