by Rick Bostick
Juicy sliced steak tacos, rice, and black beans and salsa are a delicious deal at a mere $11.
I'd much rather hear the undulating roar of a busy restaurant all around me than the clumsy clink of my own fork against a plate. Being surrounded by a raucous crowd sure can heighten the experience of dining out, so when I notice that a restaurant is consistently popular and always packed, it motivates me to determine exactly what's behind such a rabid level of devotion.
Located on a corner of the Carrefour at Kirby Woods Shopping Center in Germantown, Swanky's Taco Shop is one popular place. It's a favorite spot for families with young kids, an easy, festive destination for large groups, and an all-around great place to grab a quick, casual lunch or dinner. I thought that stopping by for a late lunch around 2 p.m. would help me miss the first big lunch rush one recent Sunday afternoon, but even then, I found a line consisting of about 30 people. The wait wasn't too bad, though, since service was quick, and anyway, everything sounded so appealing that it took me a while to decide.
Here's how the ordering process works at Swanky's: Instead of being seated, you wait in line, and once you arrive at the ingredient bar in front of the kitchen, you place your order, much of which will be made to your specifications right then and there. We chose all our accoutrements and repeated our order again to the girl at the cash register so that she could total it. Besides having to list our choices again, the process was pretty painless. We grabbed our trays along with enormous black cups of iced tea and a little number on a stick; even though nearly every table was occupied — and still, the end of the line was backed up to the front door — our food was delivered a few moments later.
For appetizers, I tried the Latin Wontons and a bowl of the roasted corn and pepper soup. The wontons were fried and filled with chorizo sausage, which had a nice kick of spice to it, and also arrived with a roasted garlic sauce and pico de gallo for dipping. The soup reminded me of a traditional tortilla soup and had a light tomato base with kernels of fresh roasted corn, thin tortilla strips, melted cheese, and strands of cilantro. My health-conscious dining companion selected nachos and was thrilled to have the option of including crisp grilled vegetables — peppers, black beans, onion, and even squash and zucchini — to go along with the usual white queso, pico de gallo, lettuce, and sour cream.
The chips at Swanky's are crisp white corn dusted with plenty of paprika, and the salsa is thick and smoky. The side of guacamole we ordered tasted freshly made and was seasoned well; I just wish there were a chopped option since that's what I favor.
For our entrées, we went with the classics, and I was impressed by the addition of so many veggies and the clean, fresh taste of the food. The quesadilla was remarkable: grilled perfectly and not greasy at all. I enjoyed the chicken enchiladas and all the extras, too — beans and rice, a green tomatillo sauce, and pico de gallo. The chicken was very tender and authentically seasoned. This would be a great dish to share since the three corn-tortilla enchiladas were a generous size.
Dessert offerings were pretty broad in their appeal. I felt I really needed to discover exactly what a taco sundae was, and I quickly surmised that it is probably geared toward little kids: pieces of waffle cone broken up with an enormous vanilla ice cream scoop, chocolate syrup, and strawberries. In addition, the crème brulée was a hit at our table with the perfect caramelized surface that cracked to reveal a creamy, vanilla-infused layer that reminded me of flan.
Overall, service at Swanky's is on target. The servers check on tables regularly and are quick to refill drinks, see if anything's needed, clear the table, and offer to-go boxes. I appreciated everyone's laser-like focus on customers' needs because I never had to ask for anything; help just materialized in front of me before I even knew I needed it.
A couple of weeks later at dinner on a Saturday night, my heart sank. I'd just walked into team trivia night! Usually, this is not what I would consider an ideal backdrop for any meal. Little did I know that it would be exciting and even sort of fun. The pop music in between the questions was loud and cheerful, the other diners were pumped to compete, and it didn't interfere with my dinner — it just made me feel like I was at a party. (On Friday nights, Swanky's often has great local bands play, too.)
For my appetizer, I chose taquitos, which are fried, rolled yellow corn tortillas with ground sirloin and cheese along with dipping sauces. This was rich and a bit heavy, a good thing to share since the portion was plentiful.
Two of the other dishes we sampled were from the "Build to Taste" section of Swanky's menu. Basically, you get to select everything that goes on your salad, burrito, or tacos, and the people working behind the counter gave us helpful information about the ingredients and our choices. The taco salad, served in an oversized black bowl, benefited from the addition of romaine lettuce, which held up under the weight of the beans, corn, guacamole, and hot sauce we chose. We loved the burrito — after I saw many people order these hefty monsters for take-out, I decided to try one for myself. The myriad choices for their foundations include barbacoa, which in this case is shredded beef and carnitas, or marinated pork.
Fish tacos are notoriously tough to get right, and the grilled ones I ordered were good but not great. The tilapia had a respectable amount of heat, but the tortillas were unremarkable. I missed not having any beans along with this dish even though there was rice with grilled peppers and squash.
Next, we opted to try two desserts, the safe choice being the key lime pie, and another dangerous one that I was quite reluctant to order: fried cheesecake. Sighing over the sacrifice, I dove into the necessary research. The key lime pie was strangely drizzled with chocolate sauce, and although it boasted a creamy, tart, just-right flavor, I am afraid it arrived a bit too cold. The shock of the night, however, was the fried cheesecake. I pictured an unwieldy triangular chunk, and that was far from what arrived at our table. It resembled cannoli with a crisp, warm shell, and it was two pieces of a half-cigar shape, so the small portion for such a dessert was perfect. At Swanky's the dramatic track lighting, exposed-duct ceiling, black, red, and guacamole-green walls, and the lush, blasting pop music brought to mind the loft apartment of a suave young bachelor. There is a tilt toward the clean lines of modernist minimalism without any sense of fussiness or clutter overall to the space. There is also a small bar that offers 50 varieties of tequila along with beer, wine, and specialty cocktails.
Swanky's is not the place for a quiet, refined meal, but that's actually the point. The atmosphere is lively and stylish, the food is as fresh and modern as can be, and the service is focused and on-point. The crowds descending upon this restaurant on a daily basis are on to something — and I think it's something great.