When New Jerseyans (including myself) were on the hunt for the best birria tacos, it seemed like an unsuspecting storefront in Union City had amassed a cult-like following. In fact, the owner of Chofi Taco, Kim Flammia, recently told me that customers have driven in from out-of-state to try her food. This did not surprise me.
Before opening her brick-and-mortar, Kim and her husband Patrick had developed an incredible fan base as vendors at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. Hoping to duplicate that success, the two restaurant industry veterans came up with a business plan, pooled their savings and opened Chofi in March 2020. Two days later, New Jersey entered lockdown.
At its core, Chofi remains a family business. Kim is the chef and creative mind behind the venture while her husband, Patrick, handles all things front-of-house. Chofi itself is a nickname for the couple’s daughter, Sofia, and the menu hinges on hand-pressed nixtamal tortillas and regional dishes from Tijuana and Kim’s home in Puebla. Many of Chofi’s recipes have been passed down by her grandmother.
While Kim is admittedly aware of the misconceptions that Americans have when it comes to traditional Mexican cuisine, this doesn’t stop her from sharing her love for authentic street food and paying homage to Mexico whenever she can. There aren’t many other places in town where you can find banderitas or esquites with bone marrow. Everything from the brightly-colored plates to the printed tablecloths brings back memories for those wanting a taste of somewhere they wish they could be.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kim who shared what Chofi’s journey has been like, what she thinks about the birria taco craze and the one dish she wants you to try.
Chofi was born from you and your husband, Patrick, cooking birria together at home. Was that something you two always enjoyed doing?
We have both worked in restaurants since we were teenagers—from Long Island to Mexico to NYC. Food and hospitality are something we both love. At home, we are always cooking together. I have always loved showing him the authentic cuisine of Mexico and he has a blast every time we visit my family in Puebla. That’s sort of why I ended up making birria at home one day and he loved it!
Your first introduction to the world was at Smorgsburg in Brooklyn in 2019. How did that opportunity come about?
Patrick was working at Jean-Georges and I had just left my job at The Mark by Jean Georges to take care of our baby. It had already been a dream of ours to open our own restaurant, and Patrick decided to apply to Smorgasburg because that seemed like a good first step. He was right! We went through the application process, met with Rob and Eric from Smorgasburg, pitched our product, and we were in.
Considering all the success you guys had there, was setting up a storefront in Union City the natural next step?
As I previously mentioned, our goal was always to open a restaurant. We had a good product, we just needed a following (and some money). Smorgasburg was great in getting us the following and we were able to save up just about enough for the store.
When Chofi finally did open in March of 2020, you were forced to close two days later because of the pandemic. Did you find it harder or easier as a family-run business to figure out a new course of action?
When we opened, it was just Patrick and I at the restaurant working every day. We did everything from making the food, taking orders, prep, dishes, etc. The pandemic made people a little more understanding and empathetic to our situation, so I think it gave us time to really figure out how to run this new business. We eventually started getting busy enough that we had to hire staff, and the people that came to try the food, in the beginning, stayed loyal and still have!
Not too long after, the birria taco craze swept the country. I imagine that had to feel like a blessing considering what Chofi specializes in. Or was the attention overwhelming?
Shortly after, people were coming to the restaurant with all kinds of ideas of what birria was because of things they had seen online. It was overwhelming to meet some people’s expectations because some came for that hype but didn’t really know what they were getting. It helped a lot, we had people traveling from Pennsylvania to come to Chofi!
I saw you recently said in an Instagram post that “there is more to Chofi than just birria.” While this dish is the one that seemingly put you on the map, does any part of you wish that the hype would die down?
No! I am happy that people are open to trying new things and we love that people come for something we strive to be the best at. With all the hype, it feels great when some people tell us that Chofi is the best they’ve had.
We do, however, want people to know we are more than just birria. We are an homage to Mexico and I strive to make food the way I remember having it back home in Mexico. I want everyone who walks in to get a real taste of Mexico, whether they have been there or not.
I also read that you were taught to cook by your grandmother. I wonder how those recipes have informed your dishes at Chofi?
Everything I make at Chofi is somehow inspired by my grandmother, Ofelia. I still call her to ask her for tips and recipes! Some of my favorite memories growing up were visiting my grandparents and having her food. And my grandmother’s food tastes like all the grandmother’s in Mexico! So I really love it when people come to Chofi and get a taste of home since I know a lot of Mexicans who live here have not had the chance to visit their families in a long time.
What do you want people to learn about your heritage when they eat at Chofi? What dishes, aside from the birria tacos, do you suggest people try?
I grew up in Washington Heights until I was 15 and then moved to Puebla. My dad is Cuban, my mom is Mexican. Chofi is everything I missed from Mexico when I was in NYC. I want people who are Mexican to finally have food the way they remember it back home, and I want people who aren’t Mexican to get a taste of something authentic and learn that real Mexican street food doesn’t mean burritos, nachos, and fajitas.
My favorite dish at Chofi is our quesadilla because it is the way every “memela stand” makes them in Puebla. A big blue tortilla with poblano peppers and mushrooms, epazote, and chicharron. It is a treat! And of course, our carne asada taco has been a hit from the start.