If you had $36,000, what would you buy? I've been asking my friends this question. Their answers: "a C-class Mercedes," "a ski boat," "a plane ticket around the world and six months of living like a king in Indonesia."
Not so for Chad Waldrop who, 10 years ago, put down that sizeable wad of cash on a Betamax Combo Flour Tortilla Machine, with dreams of one day launching a breakfast/lunch taco chain. This spring, his vision came to life in the form of Garcia's Tortilla House on Spring Street.
Stepping into the tiny eatery, the first thing you'll notice is a gleaming silver tortilla machine on display behind glass for customers to watch as they chow down on customized soft tacos. A young man in a cap quietly and patiently takes balls of dough, pats them with flour, drops them into a slot for their Willy Wonka-esque journey through a press and onto a revolving oven tray which spirals them down, down, down where they line up single file and glide onto a metal conveyor belt upwards towards their final dismount as a stack of warm, gently browned tortillas. It's a mesmerizing and impressive thing to watch, that is, if the machine is working.
On a recent visit, two tables of Hispanic construction workers sat immediately adjacent to the glass wall, eating their tacos and snickering under their breath at the frustrated Caucasian dude manning the machine as a few uncooperative tortillas slid off revolving trays, jamming in the oven. The employee wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and uttered something inaudible as he cleared the offenders and struggled to restore order to the tortilla parade.
Despite this sort of hiccup, when the Betamax Combo Tortilla Machine is performing as it should, it cranks out a whopping 900 tortillas per hour. That's a boon to efficiency, and the cornerstone for Waldrop's American Dream. For him, the Charleston Garcia's is just the beginning of a franchise. He hopes to open locations in other cities (you can also take home a stack of freshly baked tortillas).
Jessica Wilkie helms the Spring Street eatery; Waldrop's her uncle. She and I struck up a conversation from adjacent tables during her lunch break as I savored my taco of nicely charred chicken, grilled peppers and onions, refried beans, and shredded queso, sprinkled with diced onion and fresh cilantro. Wilkie graduated from Charleston's Art Institute with a culinary degree in 2012 and opened the Sweet & Savory Café in this very spot. When her rent increased, she scrambled for a new business model. "My uncle called me. He said, 'Don't do anything. I've got this idea.' "
Per Wilkie,Waldrop's idea was no lark. It was a dream that inspired Waldrop to invest tens of thousands in the streamlined, futuristic tortilla machine 10 years before he even had a venue for it.
Waldrop is a native South Carolinian, but his wife hails from San Antonio. Her Southwestern exposure peppered his palate. The menu at Garcia's boasts flavors like juicy chorizo, carnitas, pache sauce, and shredded queso. You build your own taco in a three-step process. So, for example, your lunch taco might consist of 1. Shrimp, 2. Shredded queso, and 3. Sautéed kale. Or 1. Chicken, 2. Cheddar, and 3. Lettuce. Tacos are two for $7.49, and you can mix and match. I opted for steak with potato, sprinkled with fresh pico de gallo. The steak was a little dry, but aided by the moist salsa fresco. With a side of fresh guacamole ($0.50), it was filling. I then paired carnitas with grilled peppers and onions and fresh queso. The vegetarian option called the Tree Hugger came stuffed with kale, spinach, peppers, onions, and pico. It was pretty tasty for something so virtuous.
What you can expect on the menu are fresh and popular options. You won't find, for example, the unctuous beef cheek tacos of El Alteno up Highway 78, the al pastor tacos of La Nortena on Rivers Avenue, or the spicy barbacoa of Centro Americano in Ladson. Garcia's sticks to dependable, mainstream, risk-free flavors: steak, chicken, pork, sausage — nothing too spicy, nothing too adventurous. Their sausage, for example, will disappoint a foodie who craves spice and grease; it's definitely in the Oscar Mayer department. But all of the other meats and eggs hit the spot. And filling up for $7.50 when you're hungry is a notable plus.
My favorite taco by far was a lunch special consisting of BBQ pulled pork, pimento cheese, shredded cabbage, fresh cilantro, and Serrano pickled red onion, a great combo of Southern flavors with a touch of heat. I washed it down with a sweet tea while staring through the glass at fresh tortillas riding up the conveyor belt bound for the next customer. Newcomers streamed in, each reacting with delight to the sight of the tortilla machine. "That thing's really awesome ... I'm never gonna want to leave this place," said a kid who proceeded to order the PB&J taco. "This is exactly what we've needed," a couple from Texas remarked. "I'm gonna bring my kids here!" said a sous chef from a local restaurant. Hopefully, all of that's a good omen for the future of Garcia's Tortilla House.