(In First Look, we pay a quick visit to a new restaurant or bar in Central New York to give readers an idea of what to expect. Our food critics might visit these places eventually and give us their take, but we want to highlight what’s new in our area. If you know of a new place, send an email to [email protected] or call/text me at 315-382-1984.)
Syracuse, N.Y. — The original plan was to open a gourmet taco stand somewhere in Central New York. Jessica Capels and Billy Brill, her husband of eight years, spent the past year working up recipes and creating a business plan. All they needed for their first-ever restaurant was a storefront.
As Jessica was perfecting her fresh red and green spicy taco sauces, a family friend who spent four decades running a sandwich shop in downtown Syracuse decided to retire. Joe Barbaro, 72, closed Joe’s Deli just as restaurants started reopening in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. He offered Jessica and Billy his shop just off the lobby of the M&T Bank Building at 250 S. Clinton St. in Armory Square.
“It really is a great location, but we quickly realized that this wasn’t a spot for a taco stand,” Billy said. “Jessica was able to modify the menu without having to overhaul all the recipes.”
The intimate space has five tables that can seat up to 10 customers, a counter that offers hot and cold artisan drinks from Peaks Coffee Co., and a small kitchen. They took over the store on May 1.
On June 7, Daybird became downtown’s newest grab-and-go breakfast and lunch spot. You can get a healthy meal packed with unique flavor for cheap.
Those red and green sauces Jessica had perfected for their taco stand? She reconstructed them into spreads that give a sandwich a southwestern flare without making a mess at your office desk or city bench. The specialty tacos they had planned on serving were reworked into unique sandwiches.
Jessica earned a degree from the Atlantic Culinary Academy in New Hampshire and then spent two years as a chef at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona. That’s where she developed a fancy for tortas. A torta is basically a taco sandwich … with a soft roll instead of a tortilla, and a thick spread instead of salsa.
“That was the inspiration to our sandwiches here,” Jessica said. “The marinated meats and other ingredients are pretty much the same, but the feel and overall taste are much different.”
Billy and Jessica are Daybird’s only two employees. They arrive at their office building at about 5:30 a.m. each weekday to start cooking the meat for the lunches. The chicken and beef short-ribs will have already spent the night in one of Jessica’s marinades. It will then braise the next four hours in the restaurant’s single oven.
Between breakfast customers, they make basic deli sandwiches (ham, roast beef or turkey) and creative salads that customers can take from the cooler during the lunch rush.
Well before the office workers on Clinton Street leave for the day, Billy and Jessica start marinating the meat for the next day and head home.
“I ask myself every day, ‘What kind of dream kitchen job did we just land?’” Jessica said. “No weekends. No nights. The time is perfect.”
They’re quite picky when it comes to ingredients, though. They like to make everything themselves, right down to the lemon curd that goes into the yogurt cups and the maple cardamom granola that goes on top. (That granola, by the way, sells out every day.)
You must try …
Cumin Garlic Chicken sandwich ($8): Daybird offers five hot sandwiches grilled on a panini press. The cumin garlic chicken sandwich is the perfect example of the tortas Jessica was talking about. It’s chicken that has been marinated overnight before heading to the oven, so it comes out moist as it’s shredded.
That goes onto a kaiser roll with caramelized peppers and onions and jack cheese. Before Jessica puts it onto the grill, she swipes some of her salsa roja mayonnaise across the top. This spread is a concentrated red salsa with a sun-dried tomato and jalapeño peppers base.
The grilled sandwiches come with a small side dish: blueberry baked beans, chipotle lime pasta salad or potato salad. For this visit, I picked the pasta salad. It was so good that I was sure to get it on my subsequent visits.
I usually don’t like citrus in my food, but the lime was very subtle and let the chipotle peppers take over.
Ancho Chicken Caesar salad ($8): I never thought I would highlight a caesar salad in my stories. I mean, c’mon, it’s usually just lettuce, a few chunks of chicken, some grated cheese and croutons. Well, this isn’t your basic caesar. When you peel the lid off this bowl, the croutons will be shouting at your nose: “Hey! Down here! This is what will keep you coming back!”
Those croutons speak the truth. Jessica and Billy make these croutons in-house. Before they toss them into the oven for a good toasting, they dust them with ground ancho chili peppers. This mild and slightly sweet Mexican pepper will get you to put down whatever you’re reading during lunch and look into the bowl. You’ll wonder what you just ate because it’s THAT good.
The rest of the salad keeps up with the croutons. The crunchy romaine lettuce is tossed with the same cumin garlic chicken that I raved about in the sandwich above. They finish it with a healthy flurry of crumbly cotija, an aged cow’s-milk cheese similar to Parmesan.
The salad comes with their homemade ancho chili caesar dressing. It’s thick and carries more of the chocolatey flavor of the peppers. I ended up using just half of the dressing because, honestly, this salad can stand on its own without dressing.
Breakfast sandwich with corned beef hash ($4): Think about this for a second: You can get an Egg McMuffin (preformed egg patty, a matching ham-product disc and a square of American cheese between an English muffin) for $3.79. Or you can fork out the extra 21 cents and get a real fried egg, a healthy scoop of homemade corned beef hash, your choice of cheese on a fluffy kaiser roll.
Daybird’s breakfast sandwich is probably the best-food-for-the-price I’ve bought since before the pandemic. Not only is it a true get-up-and-go breakfast sandwich loaded with protein, it tastes great. It’s pretty much a breakfast Reuben sandwich, thanks to Jessica’s Daybird sauce. It’s like Thousand Island dressing, but they add some of their own pepper relish and a touch of lime juice.
I need to go back and have them make one with their maple bacon.
By the way, I’m not knocking the McMuffin at all; I ate them for most of my adult life until I realized how great the food is in CNY.
The opening of Daybird is a victory for those of us working downtown. We’re already blessed with great sandwich shops such as Darwin on Clinton, located across the street, but this gives us even more options as companies start to reopen their offices.
Billy said the folks at Darwin visit them regularly for lunch, and the employees there urge their customers to give Daybird a try.
“They’re great neighbors,” Billy said. “They couldn’t have been nicer.”
The venue: Daybird, 250 S. Clinton St., Syracuse. (315) 960-0000.
Hours: Monday-Friday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
Credit cards? Yes
Parking: Plenty of on-street parking.
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