Friday, June 16, 2017

A Taco Affair - Little Falls, NJ

Ahi Tuna and Fried Avocado 

The quiet Main Street of this historic Passaic County town is about to see a lot more action. In the last few months, three new restaurants have opened on one block - two with an Italian accent and one with a decidedly more international flair. 

A Taco Affair opened June 1st and has been going gangbusters since. Jessica Phillips, chef/owner, is pleasantly surprised. Not that she wasn’t confident that customers wouldn’t love her food, but she was thrilled by the enthusiastic reception her little restaurant has received. On opening day, her hardworking staff of just four cranked out 1,000 tacos!

I recently sat down with Jessica for a wide-ranging interview:

The Cook’s Tour: What does “A Taco Affair” mean?

Jessica Phillips: “It’s a play on words, something fun and easy to remember. Lets people know this is not your traditional taco place.”
Jessica Philliips

 Your bio on the web site says you graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2006 and then moved to Boston. Where did you work in Boston?

“I worked for Restaurant Associates, doing corporate food service,  including Harvard Medical and Google. That kind of environment really prepared me for this because you do everything, from cooking to managing to customer service.”
Po Boy

 Where does your interest in food come from?

“My parents. My mom was an amazing cook and we also went out to eat a lot. I really wanted to be part of that.”

Did you always want to be a chef?

“Yes, always. I think cooking is the coolest thing ever. I worked at a pool snack bar as a teenager and loved it. The manager encouraged me to go to culinary school.”
Why tacos?

“It’s an easier step for my budget and growth. I love the Spanish culture. I worked with a lot of people with a Spanish background and they really taught me about the cuisine, the culture.” 

Who are your biggest food influencers?

“People I met or worked with - moms, cooks, etc. I love learning about other food cultures.”

How did you choose Little Falls as the site for your first solo venture?

“I was the sous chef at The Grove in Cedar Grove for five years. One day I saw an ad for a store for rent - it was actually the store next door. I met with the owners, I loved the space, and I took the leap! We started renovating in November.”

What is your favorite item on your menu?

“The tiki masala. I love Indian food. At The Grove we did Indian cuisine and I really love the spices, the techniques.”
From top: Bahn Mi, Fried Chicken, Brisket

What are your favorite foods to cook with?

“Spicy peppers, herbs, I love citrus in everything. It really brightens things up.”

Why is there no guacamole on the menu?

[laughs] “A lot of people have asked that! In the near future we are going to start doing Guac Wednesdays with guacamole bowls and your choice of chips, toppings, shrimp, chorizo.”

What is your ultimate vision for A Taco Affair?

“Maybe a couple of locations? Open a fine dining spot eventually.”

Finally, what would you like our readers to know about A Taco Affair?

 “That we love what we’re doing, we want to provide awesome quality, we want people to smile and be happy. Come in, get to know the staff, me, the community.”

A few days before our interview I ducked in to sample some of A Taco Affair’s offerings. Late one afternoon, in-between lunch and dinner, the place was hopping. Some of the delicious and creative tacos I tried were the “Po Boy,” Jessica’s take on the New Orleans classic. It was stuffed with spicy Cajun popcorn shrimp, tomato, green cabbage, and Old Bay mustard aioli. Another winner was the “Smoked Brisket.” Jessica smokes the brisket in-house and adds coleslaw and crispy red onions (this was my favorite). The “Bahn Mi” was a riff on the Vietnamese sandwich of marinated pork, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, and Sriracha aioli - this had a nice spice at the back-end. There are a number of fun side dishes, too, such as Mexican Street Corn, Beef Brisket Pinto Beans, and Carolina Green Rice. But one that I had never seen anywhere else was the Buttermilk Fried Avocado with Chipotle Aioli. The crunchy coating enveloping the creamy avocado with the spicy aioli was a big hit.

I didn’t get to try the Tiki Masala taco, that one intrigues me most! I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

81 Main Street
Little Falls, NJ
Open Monday-Saturday, 11am - 9pm
Closed Sunday

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

California Road Trip, Part 2: Mendocino/San Francisco

Picking up from Part 1, we left Healdsburg under still gray, rainy skies, but as we drove north toward Mendocino, the weather started to break. At each bend in the road, as I ooh’d and aah’d at the gorgeous rocky coastline, the sun started to peek out. I felt optimistic that maybe we could put our rain slickers away!

Glendeven Llamas
We booked a room at the Glendeven Inn, a charming property about a mile from Mendocino proper. The inn sits on prime coastal real estate and from the breakfast room you can gaze past the adorable resident llamas to the beautiful Pacific. 

The Glendeven offers a “shared table” dinner service on Thursdays and Saturdays for 6-12 guests, but since we already had reservations at another establishment, we had to pass. Unfortunately, a very disappointing experience at a recommended restaurant had us wishing we’d stayed at The Glendeven for dinner.

The view from the Glendeven breakfast room
The rooms at the inn are lovely. I think ours was one of the smaller rooms but it was fine. We especially enjoyed the convenience factor as our room was in the same building as the sunny breakfast room, and while they will gladly deliver breakfast to your room, we chose not to take advantage of this. Instead, we spent the time reading the paper, drinking coffee, chatting with other guests, and watching the aforementioned llamas (llamas don’t do much, but they are cute). 
Orange Bundt Cake

Egg Florentine
Breakfasts at the inn were delicious. One morning of our stay we were treated to a tart Apple Cranberry Crisp, followed by a hearty Egg Florentine (with eggs courtesy of the Glendeven chickens) with Garden Greens, and a slice of luscious Whole-orange Bundt Cake.

The inn hosts a nightly wine and hors d’oeuvres hour in their Wine Bar[n] before you head out for the evening. It’s just one more nicety provided by The Glendeven. Highly recommend staying here when in the area.

After breakfast, we drove to the Point Cabrillo light station. This historic state park dates to 1909 and is surrounded by 270 acres of gorgeous undeveloped land. We were hoping to catch sight of the gray whales as they migrated back to Alaska, but no luck.

While in Mendocino, we had dinner both nights at local, well-regarded spots. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend either Cafe Beaujolais or The Ledford House. Let’s just say they are past their prime and resting on their laurels. Although The Ledford House has a gorgeous waterfront perch and killer sunset views.

Sunset from The Ledford House
Before we knew it, it was time to drive south. But with the weather still holding, I was in no hurry to leave this gorgeous landscape. About an hour from Mendocino is another beautiful landmark, the Point Arena Lighthouse. Again, no whale sightings, but there is a visitor’s center detailing its’ fascinating history. We climbed the stairs to the top of the lighthouse and listened as a guide told the story of the original structure, which was built in 1870. In April, 1906, the tower was destroyed by an earthquake (the lighthouse is very close to the San Andreas Fault), and many surrounding buildings were also destroyed (including the Keeper’s house). It took approximately 18 months for a newly-constructed lighthouse to be completed. If you’re a lighthouse and/or history buff, this stop should be on your itinerary.

Pt Arena Lighthouse
Our stay in San Francisco was short, only two nights, but it included wonderful time with family, a visit to the Japanese Gardens and Tea House at Golden Gate Park, and a fabulous dinner at Burma Love.
Japanese Gardens

Gorgeous blooms at the Japanese Gardens
In all my previous visits to San Francisco, somehow I never got around to visiting the Japanese Gardens. The gardens encompass five acres of beautifully manicured plants, trees, and flowers, all in the style of traditional Japanese gardens. You can wind your way through flowering Japanese maples, sturdy bamboo, and of course, cherry trees (although these had already bloomed). The grounds also feature a five-story pagoda erected in 1915, elaborately carved wooden gates and bridges, koi ponds, and a large bronze Buddha.

Tea House Cookies
The highlight for me was, of course, having tea at the Tea House. Although not the best day to sit outside (the Sonoma County rain followed us south), we enjoyed a selection of tea house cookies (Fortune cookies, sesame cookies, almond cookies, and chocolate Pocky sticks) along with warm and fragrant Jasmine tea. Legend has it that fortune cookies were introduced to the United States by Mr Makoto Hagiwara, the landscape architect who worked on the original design for these gardens.

Later that day, we had dinner at Burma Love, a restaurant in the Mission district that features cuisine from Myanmar. This was a totally new food group for me so I was excited to try it. Our table shared many delicious dishes, but the winner for us was the Tea Leaf Salad. Bursting with BIG flavor (as the menu says, “it’s a party in your mouth”), it is composed of fermented tea leaf tossed with a mixture of nuts, beans, garlic, and shredded lettuce. Crunchy, spicy, fun - it was so good that at the end of the meal, we ordered it again! And the minute we got back to NJ, I started searching for it here (the closest Burmese restaurant is in Queens - not exactly around the corner). A definite stop on the SF itinerary next time!

It was a wonderful trip to California filled with great food, gorgeous seascapes, and visits with family and friends. The next day we left gray, rainy California and returned to…gray, rainy New Jersey but I’m hopeful that sunny, warmer days are just ahead!