These days, with the expansion of the greater Nashville dining landscape, culinary nomenclature can get a little murky. Take Eastern food, for example. Is that Euro-Asian cuisine or dinner on the other side of the Cumberland? Or south-of-the-border fare. Is that a fiesta below the Rio Grande, or lunch across the Davidson-Williamson county line?
The answer to the latter question is "both," if you're referring to Swanky's Taco Shop, the sleek Tex-Mex eatery in the Meridian complex in Cool Springs. The newest restaurant to set up shop in the commercial enclave alongside Noshville, Boscos and Nucci's Italian Ice & Gelato, Swanky's is the project of Mississippi resident Matthew Wilson, who launched the original Swanky's in his hometown of Memphis. His longtime friend Clay Maddox and former Memphis employee Dustin Jones oversee the Cool Springs store, which looks like what might result if someone said, "Here's a Baja Burrito, a San Antonio Taco Co. and a blank check. Go for it."
That's not to say that Swanky's is a derivative of either of the Nashville Tex-Mex landmarks. It's just that the concept shares some of the best traits of both of those places and delivers them in a package—including an interior design scheme of oversized drum shades suspended from the ceiling and an au courant color scheme of lime green and paprika orange—that is sort of, well, swanky.
Upon entering the ground-floor space of the nondescript office-park building, we were immediately struck by the vibrant activity inside the restaurant. Who knew there were so many people looking for tacos, burritos and chimichangas in Cool Springs?
We merged to the right side of the large room and queued up to place our order. The menu is a little confounding at first, especially if you mistakenly pick up the catering brochure. But once you get the right list, you're looking at a matrix of burritos, tacos, salads and "bowls," which Jones describes as "burritos without the tortilla or salads without the lettuce."
Match your vehicle with a filling—chicken, pulled pork, steak, barbacoa, veggie or ground sirloin—then start down the familiar assembly line, where you point to an array of fresh toppings, including guacamole, black beans, pinto beans, sauces of three levels of heat, corn, salsa, queso and pico de gallo, among other fresh accoutrements. Your meal gets prepared before your eyes, and you carry it away to a table or booth.
Alternatively, you can venture into the menu section of specials from the grill, which get made back in the kitchen and delivered to your table. A basket of house-fried tortilla triangles dusted with a smoky red spice blend of Spanish paprika makes for a worthy nosh as you wait for your food, but the tiny dish of deep-red salsa is a little miserly.
In our ongoing quest for the perfect fish taco, we found Swanky's version to have several particularly laudable features, including a roasted garlic-cilantro cream, stretchy flour tortillas and, most notably, flaky and buttery planks of tilapia that could stand as an entree in their own right, outside the colorful and fresh wraps.
The $8.99 trio of fish tacos arrived with a side of cilantro-lime rice and a gorgeous bed of julienned and grilled vegetables, including yellow squash, zucchini, snow peas and red bell pepper. If a signature item emerges from Swanky's menu, it will likely be this colorful tangle of vegetable strings, which accompanied several items.
The chicken chimichanga was a generous, comforting meal with a soft flour tortilla wrapped around tender meat and gently deep-fried to add a delicate crusty texture. Bathed in creamy (if bland) queso and tomatillo sauce with a smoky undertone, the large meal had enough flavors and textures to avoid being a monolithic roll of starch.
Working our way through the upside-down menu, which lists appetizers on the bottom, we ordered a handful of starters. The large bowl of roasted corn soup—with a brothy texture and a sweet hint of caramel, topped with fresh cilantro, shredded white cheese and crisp tortilla strips—would make an ample meal for just $3.99.
Latin wontons were a playful fusion of Asian and Latin fare, with six thick deep-fried wonton pockets stuffed with spicy chorizo, cheese and roasted garlic-cilantro sauce and served on a bed of lettuce with pico de gallo.
A close cousin of that finger food, the taquitos were a half-dozen soft yellow corn tortillas wrapped around a choice of meat, deep-fried and served with pico, spicy ranch dressing and salsa. The crisp cigarillos dripped dark-red grease, and while we enjoyed one or two of them, we agreed an order of six is best for a group of, say, six.
In our two lunchtime visits, we found reliably solicitous service, if perhaps a little overeager, with servers asking every couple of minutes if we needed a drink refill, dessert or to-go boxes. Our food arrived quickly and efficiently, and was hot and pretty. While Swanky's has the polish of a well-oiled chain restaurant, it doesn't seem to have bred all the flavor out of its food yet, as we might have expected of a restaurant aspiring to mass appeal. On the contrary, we found some items to be unusually spicy, in a good way. In particular, the tequila shrimp—served with rice and the colorful vegetable medley—was refreshingly piquant, laced with citrus and a consistent glow of pepper.
On the downside of the aggressive flavor profile, we found the food to be highly salty, a fact reinforced by the cashier who sympathetically joked about "all that sodium" on our plates when we asked for cups of water.
By the time our server delivered dessert, we were too saturated with deep-fried tortillas to make a dent in the deep-fried tortilla stuffed with cheesecake and served with strawberries and chocolate drizzle.
As Tex-Mex goes, Swanky's puts on a fresh, flavorful spread that's a cut above many similar concepts in terms of creativity and environment. With a full bar and attentive table service after you order at the counter, the restaurant offers a more refined atmosphere than many others of its casual burrito-bearing ilk. If the lunch crowds on our visits were fair indicators, Swanky's has identified a formula that appeals broadly to the surrounding office crowd and residents of nearby subdivisions, some of whom were stopping in for takeout.
For now, Swanky's operates just two stores—in Cool Springs and Memphis—but the team is hoping to have a half-dozen taco shops, including a Nashville location, in the next two years. If the team can fine-tune its flavors and maintain the attention to detail, Swanky's could be a very popular arrival north of the border.
Swanky's Taco Shop serves lunch and dinner daily. A limited menu is available after 10 p.m.
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