Jeff Bailey is on his way to get shrimp.
Now that New York is starting to heat up, the Friday lunch specials at Whirlybird—the Brooklyn breakfast taco and espresso café owned by the Phosphorescent bassist—are starting to cool down. Previous dishes like the blueberry pulled pork and BBQ spare ribs are giving way to more seasonal offerings, and next up is shrimp ceviche. But Whirlybird isn’t known for its lunch specials; it’s known for its one-of-a-kind breakfast tacos, which have been a revelation for displaced Texans and bagel-weary Brooklynites since the café opened last December.
Before opening Whirlybird, Bailey didn’t know the first thing about running his own café. He wasn’t a chef. He wasn’t an entrepreneur. His only experience in the service industry had been at the coffee shops he’d worked at since moving to New York. All he had was an idea.
“Ever since I had my first breakfast taco, I would wake up every morning and lament the fact that there was not a place to get one in New York. I always thought that if you opened a breakfast taco spot in Brooklyn, it would really fly.”
Five years earlier, Bailey was one of the thousands of musicians who’d descended upon Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest when he discovered the brilliance of one of the city’s signature food items.
“We were sleeping on [Dead Oceans executive] Phil Waldorf’s floor,” Bailey remembers. “He woke us up and he had this greasy bag. I was like, ‘What is that?’ and he said, ‘Breakfast.’ I ate one, and then I ate another, and then I ate another one. And then I ate another one, and then I ate another one, and then I ate another one.”
In the ensuing years, Bailey toyed with the idea of bringing the breakfast taco to Brooklyn, but a demanding schedule for both Phosphorescent and his other band, Virgin Forest, kept any nascent plans from taking root.
Then, late last year, after Phosphorescent decided to take a much-needed break following a short tour of Australia, Bailey wanted to “use the time to make something that would sustain itself.” When he and his girlfriend discovered a cheap space to rent in Williamsburg, he decided that it was time to bring his idea to fruition. He got together with friend and then-out-of-work chef Francisco Paez to start exploring menu possibilities.
With a location in place and a menu ready to go, the last thing Bailey had to worry about was what to do with all the empty wall space.
“I wanted art on the walls. I wasn’t sure how I was going to design it, but I figured I would showcase local record labels. I started with Partisan, which Virgin Forest is on, and I basically put all of their recorded output on the wall with gallery style information about all the records and [artists].”
Whirlybird now features a different local record label every eight weeks. In addition to the album artwork adorning the walls (“to be viewed for the pieces of art that they are,” says the Whirlybird website), LPs are often for sale and music from the label’s artists is played constantly on the café’s record player. Not surprisingly, Bailey’s most important criteria when selecting a label is that he likes the music. He’s going to hear a lot of it.
It was Whirlybird’s record label gallery that led to the New York culture website The Gothamist posting a piece on the café shortly after it opened. More positive press soon followed, and Whirlybird was off and running.
“The weekends were packed right from the get go,” says Bailey. So much for growing pains.
While the featured record label galleries brought Whirlybird a lot of attention early, it has been Bailey’s unique take on the breakfast taco that has kept people coming back.
Though the tacos are inspired by those that he first tried in Austin, Bailey wasn’t worried about staying true to the Texas style when he and Paez developed the menu. “I just made a taco that has my favorite aspects of all the different breakfast tacos I’ve had, and I put my own little spin on it.” Bailey’s “own spin” includes using corn tortillas instead of flour and crumbled-up jalepeño potato chips as a garnish.
Also found in a Whirlybird breakfast taco are scrambled eggs, Oaxaca cheese, a salsa which is a mix of poblano, green, red and jalepeño peppers, as well as several different spices. You can have it all for only $3, and for an extra buck you can add in chorizo. A deluxe taco, named the “Waldorf” after the Dead Oceans exec who introduced Bailey to the breakfast taco, is available for $6. The entire menu is also 100% organic and gluten-free, something that probably couldn’t have been said about the contents of the greasy bag Waldorf handed Bailey five years ago.
Though Bailey’s take on the breakfast taco might fly in the face of the tried-and-true basics of an Austin-style taco, Bailey notes that “90% of Texans are convinced,” although, “if you read the Yelp reviews there are funny little debates” about whether Bailey’s tacos are worthy of their Texan progenitors.
“It’s just good. It’s just a delicious thing, regardless of your cursory opinion about the logistics of it,” explains Bailey. “I’m not trying to claim anything Texan. I just wanted to make the most delicious breakfast item I could possibly think of.”
As with playing the bass, sometimes it’s the most basic line of thinking that delivers the best results.