Photograph by Drew Podo
When Bell Street Burritos opened in 2010, it received almost instant acclaim. “About four months into it, we were named one of the top 10 burritos in the country by USA Today,” owner Matt Hinton says. Now, the two locations sell a combined 300 burritos a day. Hinton says the most popular burrito is probably their chicken, but the one that hooks customers is his pork and green chile.
Hinton’s signature burrito was born in 2009, when low enrollment at Morehouse College left the adjunct professor of religion and theology without a job. He was still teaching a few classes at Spelman College but needed a way to supplement his income. “It seemed like every other week somebody always said, ‘Man what I wouldn’t give for a Tortillas burrito,’” he says. “I just felt like there was a market there.”
Tortillas, which closed in 2003, was the first in Atlanta to serve mission-style burritos. Hinton figured that since he had a talent for mimicking recipes, he might as well try to replicate the dish. He talked to former Tortillas employees and tweaked his spice mixes and techniques, but soon he came to a crossroads. “There’s this concept from Harold Bloom, the ‘Anxiety of Influence.’ The idea was that, in his case, artists and writers began by mimicking some other thing,” he says.
So he had to choose: Should he emulate Tortillas or develop his own identity? “I aired in favor of doing as good as I could,” says Hinton, who developed a pork recipe that was juicier than the original. Now, his burrito with slow-cooked pork, charred green chiles, melted cheese, salsa fresca, and rich pinto beans—wrapped in a flour tortilla and grilled on the flat top with a pat of butter—ranks among the city’s best. Despite the acclaim, Hinton still isn’t sure he’s made it in the restaurant industry. “I’ll know that Bell Street is successful when I hear someone that I don’t know in public talking about Bell Street or wearing one of our t-shirts at a concert,” he says.