30 E. Main St., Patchogue
SERVICE: Sporadic, but earnest and sweet
AMBIENCE: Dim, fun and deafening, with vivid walls covered in surf memorabilia. A walled backyard patio and bar evokes the beach.
ESSENTIALS: Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 7 p.m. No reservations taken and expect a wait at dinner. Street parking in Patchogue is challenging; wheelchair accessible.
It is often said people in their 20s value live experiences more than owning things, such as cars or houses. When that maxim is extended to dining, as it often is, the buzzworthiness of a place sometimes becomes more important than the food.
The California-born owners of Swell Taco, sister and brother Brooke Jankow and Steve Zoerner, instinctively understand this millennial thirst for “vibe” and experience. Inside their first Swell Taco in Babylon, they cultivated a kinetic, loud, surf-centric vibe that magnetizes a younger crowd.
Five years later, the concept has proved so successful that they’ve exported it to Patchogue, where their second Swell location opened on Main Street in early May. As in Babylon, it has been constantly packed — every wooden booth, barstool and high-top constantly filled with people younger than 30, mostly, who endure long waits for a table, as Swell does not take reservations. Once seated, wire baskets of $3 tacos and $8 burritos are delivered in languid fashion, as are oversized cocktails served in Ball jars (the signature rum punch, with a dark-rum float and a wedge of pineapple, is strong and seductive).
The food, from the salsas down to the tortillas, is identical at both places and overseen by Zoerner, who is also executive chef. But where Babylon is bright and airy, Patchogue is dimmer and louder, with a bit more of an edge. Out back is a walled patio with some picnic tables and another bar, one that is also sometimes packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
The “experience” in Patchogue is a sensual onslaught, from a blaring soundtrack of reggae or White Stripes to surf videos over the bar to ephemera lining the lime-and-gold walls proclaiming “Caribbean dreaming” and “summer loving.” By comparison, the food — almost exclusively burritos and tacos, plus four appetizers and a salad — is much less bold, which may explain the omnipresence of hot sauce on tables and in delivery bags.
Take the loaded nachos, which come in a classic, beef-laced version or smothered with pulled pork and guacamole. They are no better or worse than any you’ve had elsewhere, and the uber-creamy guacamole could probably do with a hit more acid. Better is the quesadilla, a tide of melted cheese and thin vein of salsa verde inside tortillas that have been charred to a crisp, or the deep-fried chicken flauta, quartered and served alongside a zesty crema.
Chips are warm but curiously lacking in salt, and the tortillas that underlie each one of Swell’s tacos are thicker than average and so devoid of oil that I began thinking of them as “health tortillas.” The minces and proteins that fill each taco — whether shredded chicken, chewy chunks of beef (carne asada), or soft, squishy sweet potatoes — tend to blend together, and many are showered in nearly identical combinations of shredded iceberg, grated cheese, crema and cubed tomatoes. The standouts among these are the succulent carnitas, filled with shredded, slow-cooked pork shoulder, whose peppery flavors are coaxed to life by pickled onions, and the piquant, snappy shrimp taco, the spiciest of the bunch.
Few surprises lurk within Swell’s burritos: Though they carry appealing char marks, they taste like mirror images of the tacos, albeit fully sheathed. For instance, the San Clemente channels a chicken taco that has been gussied up with refried beans. Those looking for some bite could go for a Big Papa, a tumble of cubed steak and potatoes in a habanero-laced tortilla. However, my favorite was the least adorned: The smooshy, cheesy Ricardo, filled simply with fatty refried beans and melted cheese. With a side of Swell Tacos’ inky, earthy, salsa verde — one of the best things in the place — it’s sublimity at $4.99.
As Jeff Spicoli, the surfer dude of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” once said, all you need in life are some tasty waves and a cool buzz. Swell has the buzz part down, and that will likely ensure its longevity even if there are other places nearby delivering more “authentic” tacos with the earthy taste of good masa, wallops of flavor and welcome slicks of oil. But those bare-bones places usually lack what Swell has in spades: millennial appeal.