Here’s the scene from last Wednesday at Swell Dive in Bed-Stuy: Iridescent slushie machines churned boozy painkiller cocktails. A projector showed surfing videos on the back wall, nearby a stack of games like “Battleship,” and “Cards Against Humanity.” A tall guy with a shaggy mullet, a fat mustache, and a faded windbreaker hung out at the tables and behind the bar, tight-rope walking that very fine Brooklyn line between patron and employee. And diners throughout ate tacos stuffed with lobs of chicken adobo and batons of crisply fried spam.
Dennis Mendoza, from Quezon City (just north of Manila), and Autumn Stanford, from Austin, opened Swell Dive three years ago, around the block from their Czech-Tex bakery, Brooklyn Kolache Co. The city does not suffer from a dearth of hip bars trafficking in pastiche. What makes this venue unique is its fusing of Tex-Mex and Filipino sensibilities, primarily via the tortilla.
Times critic Ligaya Mishan had some nice things to say about the venue when it opened in 2016, alongside a few tougher words, writing that “spam, dipped in egg wash, breaded and deep-fried, is mostly comic relief.” Last week, however, that spam taco ($4.95) was fantastic. The fried shell packed a gentle crunch, while the industrial luncheon meat, cut as thickly as a Snickers Bar, exhibited the airy snap of an artisanal sausage. A shower of crispy onions imparted aroma and complexity.
During the daylight hours, the kitchen also sells phenomenal adsilog breakfast tacos ($4.25) until 3:00 p.m. A fistful of heady braised pork, heavily vinegared, counterbalanced the rich, runny egg, and a heap of garlic fried rice. It is a brilliant mix of heat, tartness, and umami in a portably messy package.
That all said: The restaurant is still a little rough around the edges. If Los Tacos No. 1 represents the lard-laced, thin-as-pastry apex of flour tortillas, Swell Dive comes close to the nadir. The product was bland, starchy, and chewy over two visits. It’s a testament to the venue’s smart flavor combinations and careful cooking that the tacos often succeed in spite of their main ingredient. Most of the time.
If the chicken adobo has improved since the Mishan review — she wrote it was “watered down so much, I couldn’t tell what culture it came from” — the gains are only marginal. The thigh meat showed off a sturdy poultry punch and a tart kick, but it was missing the dish’s signature soy complexity. The meat was cold, over-salted, and dry.
So here’s the verdict. The chicken adobo tacos are a SELL, but the chicken fried spam is a BUY, as is the adsilog egg version. As a Manhattan resident, I’d take the train to Bed-Stuy any day of the week for that breakfast taco, on par with anything that King David is selling. Though really, the Swell Dive folks should figure out a way to make a better tortilla (P.S. For Filipino tacos in Manhattan, try Flip Sigi.)
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).