Whirlybird in Williamsburg made headlines for bringing the breakfast taco – a massive improvement on the heretofore NYC breakfast standard of bacon, egg and cheese on a roll – from its native Austin, Texas to Brooklyn’s virgin shores. Jeff Bailey, a bassist by trade, became obsessed with the breakfast taco upon his first encounter with a greasy bag full of them while on tour in Austin with Phosphorescent. Back in New York after the tour’s end, he found himself haunted by breakfast taco dreams. Unable to find a single place serving them, he opened Whirlybird and began making them himself. We stopped by to talk tacos.
So Jeff, you’re credited with bringing the breakfast taco to Brooklyn. What’s the story behind all this?
Well, I’m a musician. I grew up outside of New Haven, Connecticut in a town called Guilford. I’ve lived in New York for about eleven years now. I started playing music in high school. I came here to go to school, but it seemed like as soon as I got here I started playing music with a bunch of different friends in a bunch of different bands.
I became friends with a guy named Matthew Houck, who has a band called Phosphorescent. He threw me in there as his bass player, and he took me on the road. A few years ago, we were on tour and we had a gig in Austin, Texas. Our friend Phil Waldorf, who owned the record label we were on, showed up at the house we were staying at one morning after a gig.
He was holding these two greasy bags full of breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are like an institution in Austin, but I’d never had one before. I couldn’t stop eating them. They were really simple – just eggs and cheese and salsa on a lightly fried tortilla, but they were so good. After they were gone I was like, “Hey, can you take me out to get more of these?”
So he drove me out to the place. It was just this little one room shack with a bunch of old Mexican ladies making tons of breakfast tacos. They were unbelievably cheap, like seventy five cents each, and delicious. They were the most perfect thing I’d ever had for breakfast and I couldn’t stop eating them.
After we’d moved on to the next town, I kept dreaming about them. Every time I’d end up back in New York between tours, I’d go out in the morning for my bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, and every morning I’d wish I could just have a damn breakfast taco. I looked around and couldn’t find them anywhere in the city, which was kind of surprising. So I started experimenting with making them at home.
Once I realized how easy they are to make, it became like my own Quixotic mission to bring the breakfast taco to New York. So I decided to open a little coffee shop and make some good coffee and serve breakfast tacos.
A lot of people thought it was a bad idea, but I was kind of obsessed. I really pushed through and just did it. I figured if worst came to worst and no one wanted breakfast tacos, they’d still want good coffee. So I did it, and it worked.
So let’s try one of these. Can you tell us about it?
Yeah, you know coffee’s a really big part of what we do here, so I’m going to make you a breakfast taco and a cortado to go with it – pretty much my perfect breakfast.
The taco is really simple. It’s eggs scrambled with Oaxaca cheese, topped with our salsa, crumbled jalapeno potato chips and some fresh cilantro, in a corn tortilla. We start by scrambling the egg lightly, and we mix in some Oaxaca cheese with the eggs while they scramble. Oaxaca cheese is kind of like mozzarella in consistency. It’s got a really nice mild, creamy flavor that’s pretty awesome with the eggs. When the eggs are done cooking and the cheese is all melted into them, you get this really nice, fluffy, stretchy, delicious thing.
My head chef Fransisco helped me to perfect the taco. One day when we were figuring it out, he said, “I’m going to make a really good homemade salsa for this.” I was like, “Nah…not sure we need salsa…” He was like, “No, check it out.” He took this big pot and stewed up all these peppers, tomatoes and tons of really good Mexican spices. He cooked it all down and we tried it on the taco, and that was it. The salsa was definitely staying. The peppers and tomato and that nice bit of heat really work wonders with the flavors of the eggs and cheese and the tortilla. It was like alchemy.
We were going to serve it with fried potatoes, but we kept smoking the place out trying to make them, so we decided to serve them with crumbled jalapeno potato chips on top. Some people think it’s kind of lowbrow, but I think it adds a really amazing texture, getting that crunch and salt in each bite.
We get these really nice corn tortillas from Tortilleria Chinantla over on Grand Street in Bushwick. There are some pretty good tortilla factories around here, but in my opinion they’re the best. Having fresh tortillas makes a serious difference. We fry the tortillas really quickly in a little oil, to give them a little crisp and char, but take them off before they get to a point where they’ll crumble. In go the eggs and cheese, then the salsa, chips and cilantro, and that’s it.
And what about the cortado?
We’re pretty serious about the coffee here too. I worked at Oslo Coffee, just a few blocks up that way, on and off for about six years or so when I was back in town between tours. I was really interested in good coffee and I wanted to learn everything I could about it. Oslo was cool enough to have me on when I was in town, and I learned just about everything there is to learn about making good coffee there.
We use their ‘Odin’s Blend’ espresso blend here. They do a lot of single origins and that sort of thing, but I’m a big fan of this blend. A lot of people now are serving more unwashed beans, that have more of a fruity, cherry flavor to them. The Odin’s blend has really nice grassy, down-to-earth flavors. It’s like dark and stormy goodness.
The cortado is equal parts espresso and steamed milk, served in a glass – always in a glass – with little or no foam. By today’s definition with espresso drinks, a latte is made in a ten ounce cup, a cappuccino in an eight ounce cup, a cortado is smaller than that, and a macchiato is the smallest – basically straight espresso with a little foam. The milk for each is steamed the exact same way. The ratio of milk to espresso is the only thing that changes. Personally, I just really like the one-to-one ratio in the cortado.
Are you still touring or are you spending more time in Brooklyn now that you’ve got this place?
Both, but we’re all trying to slow things down a little bit now. Things started out with us driving around the country in a minivan, playing really small shows. Then Matthew started getting a lot of good press and his records started doing really well. All of a sudden, we were touring like crazy. At one point we were basically on tour for five years straight. I had to give up my place here because we were on the road all the time. Whatever life I had built for myself here was kind of slowly picked apart because we were on the road so much.
Life on the road is really, really fun, and you become so good at playing music that it’s kind of unbelievable. You don’t even think about it. You just play. Musically, you develop this beautiful unspoken connection with your friends on stage, but at the same time, you’re kind of slowly drink yourself to death in a van. [laughter.] It’s a thing you have to balance, you know?
I think we all kind of started to grow up and were ready to slow things down and start rebuilding our lives off the road back here in Brooklyn. I got married this year. I wanted to have a home again. I thought I could set down some roots by opening this place, and maybe bring a little bit of life on the road back here by making breakfast tacos for people.
Whirlybird is located at 254 South 2nd street, between Havemeyer and Roebling, in Williamsburg.
Photography by Liz Clayman. All rights reserved.