November 05, 2020

Texas Comes to Tennessee: Torchy’s Tacos Headed for East Memphis

The Daily Memphian

By Jennifer Biggs

Some “damn good” tacos are coming to Memphis. If you’ve spent much time in Texas, particularly in the Austin area, you know what that means: Torchy’s is on the way. Your Trailer Park taco is coming and you can get it cheesy when you get it trashy.

“Damn Good” is the bold motto that the company calls a mantra, keeping with its fun and funky, “keep Austin weird” food-truck roots. Torchy’s started as one small truck on South First in Austin and founder Mike Rypka’s marketing campaign was handing out food around town on his red Vespa.

It’s grown to more than 80 locations since 2006, expanding first through Texas then in 2016, outside the state to Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.

Next stop, 711 S. Mendenhall in Williamsburg Village Shopping Center, coming late spring or early summer 2021.

Matthew Miller, who spent 16 years with Bonefish and a couple with Hopdoddy at Poplar and Perkins, joined Torchy’s as the managing partner for Memphis in January. The plan was to have a location open here around July, but COVID delayed it.

The silver lining is that the space on South Mendenhall became available while they were waiting. The Boyle project is quickly turning the block on Mendenhall just south of the railroad tracks at Poplar into a foodie haven. Southall Café opened in September, and soon Greys cheese shop will, to be followed later by the Hen House Memphis wine bar. All are on the west side of the street with Torchy’s site.

Across the street, Magnolia & May recently opened, joining longtimers The Half Shell, Gus’s Fried Chicken, Gibson’s Donuts and Garibaldi’s Pizza, relatively new to the block.

Miller, who has been working at the Baton Rouge Torchy’s location for several months, said Torchy’s Memphis will have 76 indoor table seats, 20 at the bar and 22 outside. A drive-thru is possible, though not a certainty.

“We don’t really have any parking room here (in Baton Rouge), so we use a text system,” he said. “People text when they get here, go to the pick-up lane and we take their order out to them. We might do that in Memphis, too.”

Scott Hudler, Torchy’s chief marketing officer, said that Rypka and his original partners sold a minority interest in the company to growth equity firm General Atlantic in 2017, but maintain the majority interest and creative control.

“Mike was a classically trained chef before he started Torchy’s,” Hudler said. “His idea was to elevate the street taco, but the food trailer was just in a terrible location.

“So he’d literally go to stoplights and hand out food to people in their cars and they would say ‘Man, that’s damn good.’ That just grew to kind of become a rallying call in the organization, and now it’s our mission statement: Be damn good. That’s everything, from the people we hire to the locations to the bar to, of course, the food.”

It’s not really Mexican food and it’s not really Tex-Mex. The tacos are fun and filling. Appropriate for today but around for years, there’s the Democrat, made with barbacoa and avocado on a corn tortilla, and the Republican, with grilled jalapeno sausage and cheese on a flour tortilla.

A best seller is the Trailer Park, with fried chicken, green chiles, pico de gallo, lettuce, cheddar-jack cheese and poblano sauce. ‘Get it trashy’ means hold the lettuce and add green chile queso, the quintessential Torchy’s menu item.

“It’s incredibly addictive. It’s our signature dish with a recipe that is closely guarded. They won’t even tell me what’s in it,” Hudler said. “You can add diablo sauce, you can get it hillbilly style (adding chorizo), so you get to customize it. Sitting down with a group of family or friends and our green chile queso is part of the experience.”