Back In mid-March, when panic was beginning to spread through the restaurant community and I started to embrace abstinence as the only way to manage the risk of infection, I found a glimmer of hope in a burrito. One of my most trusted places had quickly come up with a plan to pivot to curbside pickup and retain all of its employees—and to go a step further by selling its customers staples such as produce, toilet paper, and bleach.
I wasn’t surprised. Matt Hinton, founder of Bell Street Burritos, has long known a thing or two about crisis and reinvention. After one of the religion classes he taught at Morehouse and Spelman was canceled due to diminished enrollment during the Great Recession, he had to think fast to support his young family. So, he started making and delivering Mission-style burritos. Back then, in 2009, Atlanta didn’t allow food trucks, and Georgia hadn’t yet passed its cottage food law permitting entrepreneurs to cook for the masses out of their home kitchens. There were no adventurous artisans selling food by subscription to smartphone-wielding millennials.
Hinton’s business, strictly friends-based at first, took off. At the time, Atlantans still hadn’t gotten over the 2003 loss of Tortillas, the cult eatery on Ponce de Leon that brought overstuffed San Francisco burritos to the city. My children and I had eaten there once or twice a week, and so had Hinton. When I spied Hinton outside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market sometime in 2010, steaming fat burritos that were startlingly similar—maybe even superior—to the ones I’d been missing all those years, I immediately took a shine to Bell Street. Hinton expanded that year to a small counter inside the market and later to a restaurant on Howell Mill Road (both now closed), then to Bell Street locations in Brookwood Hills, the Stove Works (across from Krog Street Market), and, now, Tucker.
From the time Hinton opened inside Sweet Auburn, his menu had grown beyond burritos to include quesadillas and tacos (and, later, tamales). While I appreciate what he’s done to diversify, I remain staunchly faithful to Bell Street’s big, juicy burritos bursting with quality rice, green chili peppers, cheese, and proteins such as pork, ground beef, tofu, or shrimp, served with appropriately spicy green or red salsa. One of the things I love most about these burritos is the way the cooking juices and drippings accumulate within the flour tortilla without soaking through it. You can keep them in the refrigerator or even hoard them in the freezer without the risk of them losing their essential goodness.
Bell Street burritos alone are enough to sustain anyone through quarantine (mine, alas, has continued even after dining rooms have reopened). And if you tire of your go-to order, you can try something new, at least for a few more weeks. One of Hinton’s neighbors in Tucker, Steven Bowe, has a huge, globe-shaped smoker and a talent for barbecue. A deal was struck in March, with Hinton supplying the meats and Bowe smoking them. During the height of the lockdown, Bell Street began offering Bowe’s smoked meats as part of its family meal kits or inside its burritos. The smoked pork and tender brisket with Hinton’s tangy barbecue sauce are a big hit.
Bell Street is as necessary now as it was when it stepped in to fill the Tortillas void a decade ago. And Hinton’s survival strategy—“don’t be too attached to the way you have always done things”—offers some assurance that he’ll be around a decade from now, too.
This article appears in our August 2020 issue.