North-facing customers at Swanky's Taco Shop, an aptly named taco bar on Poplar at Kirby, next door to the Macaroni Grill, have a view of some familiar -- if not entirely scenic -- golden arches. Chomping down into one of Swanky's overstuffed, speedily delivered, and extremely affordable burritos, it's almost impossible to wonder how long it will be before those arches -- and the traditional model for fast dining -- begin to crumble.
"It doesn't matter if the line is out the door. You'll have your food in front of you in five minutes or less," says Thomas Pak, owner and idea man for Swanky's. "Usually, in a counter-service restaurant, if somebody comes in with a large to-go order, it can be like 20 people cutting in line. But not here. We have a second line that is specifically for large to-go orders."
Swanky's is more than just a place to get bistro-quality eats cheap in a comfortable environment. It also offers a tequila bar, featuring top-of-the-line swigs and a number of signature drinks. There's an unobtrusive flat-screen TV over the bar for sports fans. The restaurant serves food until 2 in the morning, and after 10 p.m., the DJs set up their turntables and the staff unbolts the stainless-steel tables from the floor to make room for a bar crowd that -- after several slugs of tequila -- might be in the mood for some dancing.
"This is our concept store," Pak says. "We are also developing a lower-tier burrito bar [modeled after] Subway. And we're working on an upscale store. We want to grow. We'd like five, 10, 20 stores. We want Swanky's to grow nationwide.
"We have no secrets at Swanky's," Pak says. "There's no special sauce or magic sprinkle. But we are probably the only restaurant in town that doesn't have a freezer. We have all of our produce delivered daily, and we make everything fresh. I guess if we do have a secret that's it."
Though nighttime diners will eventually have the option of full-service dining, Swanky's has modeled its service after the successful and innovative Subway chain, and customers at Pak's upscale taco bar are greeted with the familiar question: white or whole wheat? In this case, however, they're talking about tortillas, which can be stuffed with shredded (a bit too juicy) beef or spicy chicken. Tacos and burritos may also be augmented with cheese, rice, black beans, and a toss of sautéed veggies that go well beyond the usual mix of onions and peppers. Sauces and salsas range from traditional pico and guacamole to a fiery habanero sauce that manages to retain all the buttery flavor of the infamous hot chili without the overpowering burn. In addition to tacos and burritos, Swanky's also serves up quesadillas and a handful of other Tex-Mex staples, including a hearty and flavorful roasted pepper and corn soup. Eventually, they will offer tapas on the dinner menu.
"We're fond of tequila," Pak says, explaining that his bar will soon have a number of fine tequilas that Memphis distributors don't generally keep in stock. "We sip tequila here. We talk about it. Most people just shoot it and don't realize that fine tequila is complex: It has a whiskey quality and picks up flavor from being aged in oak barrels. If somebody wants to try something, we'll give them a sample because we don't want people to be intimidated about anything."
Tequila may be Pak's passion, but Swanky's sangria, rivaled locally only by the Beauty Shop, is particularly special. Though it's been sweetened with cherry juice to appeal to Memphis' notoriously sweet-leaning palate, it's a far cry from the red, sugary concoction that's passed off as sangria at most Tex-Mex establishments. At Swanky's the blend of wine, brandy, and crushed fruit is refreshing with a distinct kick. For an alcoholic beverage, it seems downright healthy. And, for rather mysterious reasons, all of the ingredients are chilled prior to being combined.
"I don't know what chilling the brandy, wine, and fruit does exactly," Pak admits. "But that's how I learned to make it. My parents call it the $120,000 recipe, because they sent me to college in Tampa [Florida] and that's all I learned. But that's not really true. I also learned a good margarita recipe."