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The bouquet of Swad’s Chicken 65 appetizer was aromatic, though its flavor was bland. Photo by Velton Hayworth.

Swad Indian & Nepalese Cuisine

8333 Sohi Dr, Ste 100, Watauga. 11am-10pm daily. 817-479-7575. All major credit cards accepted.

Swad Indian & Nepalese Cuisine’s website proclaims, “Food is a symbol of love.” Dining at Swad is indeed akin to love, if – like Shakespeare and ’70s rock band Nazareth – you think love is characterized by pain tempered with sporadic bliss.

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In Swad’s defense, the mediocrity of Indian cuisine across the United States is a consequence of capitalism, not culinary weakness. Subcontinental food is among the most labor intensive and some of the world’s most flavorful. Swad, in fact, is Hindi for “flavor.” Still, Americans insist Indian restaurants maintain abyssal price points. This paradox makes high-end Indian restaurants the unicorns of the culinary landscape. 

As my guests and I arrived at Swad, I was reminded of the fact that all stateside subcontinental restaurants must be judged with a certain handicap.

Swad lives in a bunker-like berth of a strip mall in a Coen brothers-eque section of Watauga. In a former life, Swad’s space was a fast-food chicken joint, and its protruberant concrete drive-thru hangs like a scar from the restaurant’s face. Speaking of joints, the interior – decorated with head shop-like tchotchkes and an electric orange and pale green palette –– looks more like a stoner’s dorm than an eatery.

More often than not, what appears to be a “dive” serves complex, artful food. I noted but resolved not to let the lacking ambiance prejudice my assessment of the bill of fare, which after a short wait we ordered from our server, Pradivhe.

Pradivhe is the female half of a spousal team, who along with two part-time cooks, juggle all of Swad’s operations. Mahesh, Padivhe’s husband, formerly a software engineer, frequently cooks.

My guests ordered the chicken 65 and samosas for appetizers and a lamb tikka masala entree. On Pradivhe’s recommendation, I ordered the Nepalese vegetable chile momo and a traditional mango lassi drink.

Pradivhe, helpful and shy, opened a bottle of wine we bought earlier at the adjacent liquor store. Swad does not serve alcohol, but patrons are welcome to bring their own, and there’s no corking fee added.

My hopes soared as minutes later I lifted to my mouth an aromatic liver-colored morsel of chicken 65. I dropped the steaming tidbit onto my tongue and chewed. I was disappointed.

The meat was overcooked and arid, textured by sinew and fat. The spicy blend of ginger, garlic and red chile for which the South Indian snack is known, though evident in bouquet, was absent in taste.

I reached for a samosa, and things improved.

The dumpling skin was sublime. The crispy dough resisted my bite coyly, then gave way with a crunch and spilled a savory filling of spicy potato, onion, and peas. Though accompanied by two traditional chutneys – one tamarind, one mint – the samosas were best enjoyed unadulterated by either uninspired sauce.

My guest and I neutralized the lingering (but not overpowering) heat with refreshing sips of the mango lassi as the entrees landed on our table.

The lamb tikka masala further supported a theory I was developing, that Swad shone on vegetarian dishes and sunk on flesh-based fare. The overdone and exsiccated sheep’s meat floated in a thick, coral sauce delicious to the eye but insipid on the tongue – all flavor tragically lost beneath a Campbell’s tomato soup-like quality.

I tasted the vegetable chile momo last. If my theory was right, the momo –– being vegetarian and Nepalese, as was its cook –– would delight. My theory proved right.

The momo dumplings were topped by a fragrant crimson gravy of tomato, red chile, onion, bell pepper, cumin, and tumeric – each ingredient discernable but not spotlight-stealing. The onion and cabbage filling was velvety, complementing the coquettish crispness of the dumpling. Each ingredient seemed an exquisite note in an even better melody.

The galub jamun dessert (which might have been a stale convenient store donut hole re-hydrated by several mushy weeks in a sugar water bath) won’t get many column inches here. Frankly, I blame myself for eating anything instead of letting the taste of the delectable momo linger.

With Swad as with love, occasional moments of excellence exist in a mess of the banal and sometimes bleak. And, like love, Swad is mostly worth it, if you stick to the vegetable-based and Nepalese fare – and if you’re not afraid of Watauga. 

Swad Indian & Nepalese Cuisine 

Samosa $4.59

Chicken 65 $8.99

Vegetable chile momo $7.99

Lamb tikka masala $11.99

Galub jamun $3.99

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