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Tortillas calls it a wrap

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Atlanta's original burrito joint and a Ponce de Leon institution, Tortillas is closing its doors after 19 years of feeding a generation of local slackers.

Wildly successful during its heyday in the mid-'90s, Tortillas is in many way a victim of its own influence, having kicked off the city's burrito boom that has spawned countless imitators and, most recently, at least two local restaurant chains.

As co-owner Charlie Kerns explains: "The burrito war has been fought and won. We didn't win it."

Kerns says that while Tortillas still does enough business to remain open indefinitely, he wanted to retire his labor of love before it slips too far into decline.

"Sometimes things look better in the rear-view mirror," he says.

When Kerns and his wife, Grace, moved here from San Francisco in 1983, the couple soon missed the thick, bean-filled burritos popular on the West Coast. They opened Tortillas the next year in the small Ponce de Leon storefront now occupied by Marco's Pita.

Like its contemporary, Fellini's, the burrito joint developed an immediate following among young Intowners.

"I hire a lot of musicians because I know where they're coming from and I like having that vibe in my place," says Kerns, 55 and a rock-band veteran. He followed a similar approach with his two other Ponce de Leon restaurants, Eats (which turns 10 this year) and The Local.

Inspired by Tortillas' success, a long list of Intown burrito places have sprung up, including Raging Burrito, Burrito Art, Great Western Burrito and El Myr. But Kerns says the real damage to his own indie enterprise came from local chains Willy's Mexicana Grill and Moe's Cantina.

The final nail in the coffin came when Moe's, which already has about 50 franchise locations in seven Southern states, opened up a couple of blocks east of Tortillas. Kerns believes the move was an intentional grab for his turf.

"If that guy ["Moe"] wants to meet me in my parking lot, I'd be happy to duke it out with him," he says.

After Tortillas' last day on May 24, Kerns says he'll think about what next to open in the familiar building with the open-air balcony overlooking Ponce.

"It's a great location and we're not about to give it up," he says.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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