For this week’s column, we take a look at the interesting story behind Bell Street Burritos — a new food stall inside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.
Matt Hinton was happily employed as an adjunct professor of religion at Morehouse College — that is, until the day when his contract wasn’t renewed as a result of budget cutbacks. He managed to line up a gig at Spelman College and was soon teaching two entry-level classes — Introduction to Islam and Introduction to Eastern Religions.
There was just one problem. This was contract work, meted out semester by semester, and it didn’t offer any of the salary or security he needed to support his wife and two small children. As much as he didn’t want to, he’d have to find another source of income.
That was when this native Atlantan got the idea to bring back a piece of this city’s culinary history. Hinton would recreate the food from a restaurant with a small but loyal-bordering-on-obsessive following.
Tortillas, a grungy fixture on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Midtown, limped to a quiet finish in 2003 — an event that was marked with only a brief line at the end of a restaurant notes column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One more belly-up burrito joint didn’t mean a hill of refried beans to the city at large.
Yet for those Atlantans who had come of age at Tortillas, its closing was a tragedy.
“It was cheap, it was really good, and it was sort of semi-filthy, ” recalls Hinton with a wistful note in his voice. “It was kind of a rock-’n'-roll place.”
Indeed, owner Charlie Kearns ran the restaurant almost like a commissary for Atlanta’s nascent alt-rock community; both his long-term employees and his best customers were often in bands. The food at Tortillas was their fuel of choice.
“People who liked the place averaged three times a week, ” Hinton says. “Me, I ate there an awful lot.”
Hinton began to notice that Tortillas fans were not giving up the ghost. It had an active Facebook page even though it died before the age of Facebook. Hinton heard a rumor of one man who was so distraught he had a burrito tattooed on his arm with the date that Tortillas closed.
So Hinton set up a Facebook page for West End Burritos in early 2009 and sent out an e-mail to a few dozen friends, offering to make deliveries once a week. He had no restaurant experience, no cooking background and no recipes.
Word spread quickly, and soon the Facebook fans were numbering in the hundreds. A couple of ex-employees of Tortillas signed up for delivery.
“They were really helpful, ” Hinton recalls. “They gave me a lot of tips on things I didn’t know. Like, I had never had the Tortillas guacamole.”
Now that we have branches of Moe’s, Willy’s and Chipotle on every street corner, it seems odd to get so worked up about a tube of meat, beans and rice. But back in the early 1990s, handheld burritos were still fairly uncommon. And the ones served at Tortillas seemed somehow inimitable.
“There were some technical distinctions about the Tortillas burritos, ” Hinton says. “They never used canned beans and started cooking them early in the day. They put the cheese on the tortillas to melt before building them. That makes a big difference.”
Hinton was soon maxed out, producing 50 burritos a week and beginning to worry he needed to go aboveboard with his business, which meant finding a commercial kitchen.
Then, during the summer he took a trip to Portland, Ore., and was blown away by the breadth and diversity of the food truck scene there.
“I liked the idea of a food truck because it seemed more my speed, ” Hinton says. “But the more I looked into it, the more I realized things weren’t altogether equal here.”
Because of Atlanta laws that restrict the movement of mobile food operations, trucks can park only in predesignated spots. The people still have to come to the food; the food can’t go out to the people.
Through his involvement with the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, which stages monthly picnics at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Hinton heard about an available food stall inside the market. “The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good fit, ” says Hinton, who foresees a day when food trucks are legal to roam the streets of Atlanta and this stall at the market will serve as a commissary to supply the truck. Or trucks.
So Hinton opened Bell Street Burritos in the market, and for now is just serving lunch “from about 11 to about 4, ” Mondays through Fridays. Some customers see just another burrito stand; others see the second coming of Tortillas.
For now, Hinton isn’t teaching any classes, so he can get this business up and running. And he’s looking for the guy with the Tortillas tattoo. He’d like to give him a burrito.