Swensen’s has come a long way from the small, San Francisco-based ice cream parlor started by a World War II Navy veteran.
Through the years, it expanded with franchises all across the country, then closed nearly all of them down save for the original and the restaurant located off US-1 and Red Road here in South Florida. In fact, Swensen’s Miami has been in town for so long it’s currently the oldest restaurant in the Coral Gables area, open since 1971. The last time I had visited was right after watching The Dark Knight Rises at Sunset Place. I walked over with my husband and indulged in some feel-good diner food (egg salad sandwich and fries) while he waxed poetic about the old trolley car that used to travel the perimeter of the Swensen’s he used to visit as a child. That was our Swensen’s experience.
I was recently invited by the South Florida Bloggers to go try out Swensen’s new menu (including “adult” milkshakes–more on that in a bit), and I was floored: Bistro burger. Thai grilled chicken salad. Fajita pita pocket. Craft beers. Even a Paleo menu? The sweet and kitschy family diner and ice cream parlor of yore sounded more like the competing gastropubs and other burger and beer joints that continue to pop up around town–and that isn’t a bad thing.
A visit to Swensen’s first requires an extensive run-through of their impressive beer menu.
Stouts and porters, IPAs, pale ales are all readily available by the bottle (no drafts here yet, sadly), as are a number of ciders, including the highly impressive Strawberry & Lime Koppaberg. Our server Ricky recommended some of his personal favorites, the Palo Santo Marron by Dogfish Head and the well-lauded the Three Philosophers by Ommegang Brewing.
If you’re going to order an appetizer, I recommend two dishes. One is the mac n cheese–truffle, to be exact. There’s a lobster mac that I can’t attest to, but i’ll tell you this: ever since I tried Swensen’s magical truffle mac, all other mac n cheeses have truly fallen short.
The next is the Nica Sliders, which feel like a first-generation millennial’s take on traditional Nicaraguan fritanga (basically everything I would ever want from food). Beef patty, repollo (a crisp cabbage slaw), maduro (sweet plantain), queso frito (fried cheese), and a Nicaraguan-style cream are all piled atop one another inside soft bun. I sampled it sans beef and found it to be the holiest of cheese sandwiches.
For the carnivores reading: my friend and fellow blogger Gio at Petite Thoughts named the duck confit sliders as the best dish of the house, but it seems those are no longer on the menu. I believe the dolphin fingers would be her second choice. The only way it could possibly be better would be if I could replace the burger with their phenomenal garden patty. Filling, flavorful, and freshly prepared in house; I don’t exaggerate when I say it’s among the top five veggie burgers I’ve ever had in Miami.
While Swensen’s still serves a number of ice cream flavors and classic treats like sundaes and banana splits, it’s their alcoholic milkshakes that will really impress you.
The only thing close to this I’ve ever had was a Jameson soft serve at the Boiler Room in Chicago. These were a bit different, and much more decadent. The Bananas Foster shake made with Due South’s Caramel Cream ale was thick and sugary in all the right ways while the Cafe Con Leche Shake played on my Latinidad, evoking my love of Cuban coffee by blending Cigar City’s Maduro Brown Ale with rich coffee ice cream. On my list to try next: the stout-and-chocolate combo that is the Black Forest Shake.
Swensen’s is definitely doing things differently these days and I for one applaud their efforts. Reinventing a restaurant isn’t easy, especially one as long-standing as this, but their approach not only caters to the curious college students right across the street, it also plays well on the emotions of locals. Yes, give us our Miami Sunset Shakes and South Beach Burgers. We’ll buy em all–hook, line, and sinker.