The quiet Main Street of this historic Passaic County town is about to see a lot more action. On June 1, A Taco Affair opened to local enthusiasm and anticipation. Jessica Phillips, chef/owner, is pleasantly surprised. Not that she wasn’t confident that customers wouldn’t love her food, but she was overwhelmed by the 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.
JERSEY BITES: You graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2006 and then moved to Boston. Where did you work in Boston?
JESSICA PHILLIPS: 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.
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.
It’s an easier step for my budget and growth. I love Spanish culture. I’ve worked with a lot of people with Spanish backgrounds and they really taught me about the cuisine, the culture.
Who are your biggest food influencers?
People I’ve met or worked with: moms, cooks. 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 tikka masala. I love Indian food. At The Grove we did Indian cuisine and I really love the spices, the techniques.
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, or chorizo.
What is your ultimate vision for A Taco Affair?
Maybe a couple of locations? And to open a fine dining spot, eventually.
What else would you like our readers to know?
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, and the community.
A few days before our interview I ducked in to check out 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 banh mi, a riff on the Vietnamese sandwich of marinated pork, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, and sriracha aioli 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 tikka masala taco, and that one intrigues me most! I’m sure I’ll be back…soon.
A Taco Affair
81 Main Street
Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Hours subject to change.