The name is dubious, but the food is mighty good.
I’m going to limit my comments on the nomenclature of things at Shifty’s taco to a single warning: Think about the order in which you ask for your meal, lest you fall into the same trap I did recently when making my request at the counter for “two Shifties and a Rub.” It would have been really unfortunate had I followed that up with a plea for a “Little Blast”—an actual taco name here—but I managed to avoid that trap.
Naming conventions aside, then, you can pretty much munch your way through the menu at this Brewerytown newcomer with relative impunity, confident in the fact that you’ll be eating well, and at a marvelously fair price-point. A quick jaunt from the recently reviewed Rybrew—where you’re encouraged to pick up a few beers for your meal at Shifty’s—this storefront is yet another reason to head west on Girard.
Start off with an order of guacamole and chips, but go in prepared to want a second little cupful. Most guacs, after all, go wrong in one of two ways—underseasoning or lack of sufficient lime juice—but this gorgeous green mashup boasts plenty of both. It’s almost startlingly fresh, in fact—a bright, lively way to begin a meal. The only downside, really, was that the chips didn’t have quite enough of an aggressive snap to stand up to it; curious, given that they’re fried up in-house twice a day. Fortunately, the guacamole was good enough to overcome the shortcomings of its scooping vessel, as were the salsas, including a roasted tomato one whose almost smoky flavors served to brilliantly highlight the fruity sweetness of the tomatoes, and a house-made hot sauce pleasantly stinging with charred habaneros and Sriracha yet concentrated enough to avoid being dominated by that heat. The smoked tomatillo cream, all light and refreshing, worked well as a cooling chaser to the hot sauce, a sort of Tex-Mex riff on a raita. It also successfully topped a bowl of three-bean chili, itself all dark and hearty and benefiting from the bright hit of those tomatillos.
But the tacos here are Shifty’s raison d’être, and on that count, Chef Geoff Gabrick and his team (including Jeb Woody of Honey’s and Zack Shell of El Fuego) acquit themselves admirably. The Rub was a highlight, its tender strings of braised brisket singing a song of adobo and chipotles, the slow simmering heat building yet never cresting: Lovely. The Hem and Hawl, on the other hand, demonstrated the kitchen’s aptitude with fish. Well-cooked and tender tilapia done on the plancha was anchored by an attractive slaw that, though it could have been a touch brighter, nonetheless brought enough crunch and liveliness to each bite to win me over.
I also found myself swooning over The Towner, a damn-the-orthodoxy handful of moderately spicy chicken nuggets joined by translucent pickled red onions, cheese sauce, homemade ranch dressing and iceberg. It was a shamelessly savory, messy item that almost single-handedly justifies a walk down the street for a six pack.
As for the namesake taco: While The Shifty looks great on paper—who wouldn’t want chorizo, chicken and maduros?—the actual preparation itself was more perplexing than pleasurable. The chicken was tender and hyper-juicy, but the chunks of chorizo dominated each bite they found their way into. And the Fixy, a could-have-been-great taco of rajas and cubes of cumin-kissed sweet potatoes, suffered a bit from too-crunchy potatoes; the flavor, however, was excellent.
Overall, Shifty’s is a gem, and perfectly suited to the neighborhood in its casual, friendly, come-as-you-are vibe. This is a neighborhood place in the old-school sense of the term: Come on in and break bread—or, rather, tortillas—with people you may or may not know but probably will after a meal here. Or enjoy the fresh air and savor your meal outside, standing up in the little enclosed courtyard. Either way, you’ll leave happy, satisfied, and ready for more tacos.
2730 W. Girard Ave. 215.232.1413. shiftysta.co
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11am-9pm.
Cuisine: Tacos with a twist, lovingly homemade.
Price range: $1-$8.
Atmosphere: Casual, friendly, distinctly lacking in pretense.
Food: Overall excellent.
Service: Charming, pleasant counter service.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014