Tortilla Flats represented a unique new form of restaurant when it opened in 1983 — one of many places that were once scattered across the Village but most of which have since closed.
In the 1980s, the restaurant industry in New York City was changing. For decades, eating establishments had fallen into several ironclad categories: diner, fancy French restaurant, pizzeria, Chinese sit down or carryout, among them. Suddenly, a new type appeared on the horizon. We might disparagingly call them theme restaurants, but they were much better than that term suggests. Tortilla Flats was a prominent example, though its location in the far West Village was obscure, one you had to go searching for.
Principally situated in Greenwich Village or the East Village, this new breed took a playful attitude toward international and American regional cuisines and decked themselves out with wall-to-wall kitsch to put the theme across. There was Jamaican resort-inspired Sugar Reef, aquamarine-feeling Gulf Coast, and still-open Lone Star State-enthused Cowgirl Hall of Fame. In horrible taste? Most certainly!
Tortilla Flats’ name and décor suggested inspiration from Marfa, Texas, with tiny colored lights everywhere, pictures of Elvis, and lots of tinsel even though it wasn’t Christmas. Giant dinners were served on pastel Fiestaware plates at booths that seemed to have been haphazardly torn from some other establishment. One booth commemorated actor Ernest Borgnine, for no discernible reason.
The waiters practiced a certain insouciance, but had hearts of gold and paid special attention to families with young children. But patronage was not limited to families: There were students from nearby colleges, late-night diners, trashy cocktail fanciers, wandering Greenwich Village tourists, and area residents who didn’t want to travel very far for lunch or dinner.
The menu was mainly Tex-Mex, with food that presaged that of modern places like Javelina, but at cheaper prices and with less pretense. You could easily feed a family of four, with drinks for the parents, for less than $100. There were game nights, too, including bingo, trivia, and hula hoop contests, fueled by margarita rivers with rock salt encrustations along their banks.
The food was pretty good, but let’s not overpraise it. The chili con queso would mollify a homesick Texan, the tortilla soup was fortifying and cheap, the chimichangas (deep fried burritos) were the giant gut bombs you’d expect, and the chicken mole enchiladas as good as you might find in a middling East Village Mexican restaurant with no ties to Puebla. My choice — and I think it was the best one — was the cheese enchiladas in chili gravy, which took me back to San Antonio and made me a little misty eyed.
Once the glitzy neighborhood called MePa had replaced the Meatpacking District a few blocks to the north, Tortilla Flats’ fate was sealed. It was partly kept alive, like a patient in an iron lung, by the presence of Barbuto directly across the street — that wildly popular semi-outdoor restaurant from Jonathan Waxman underneath a fashion photo studio is nearly impossible to get into. And I must sheepishly admit that the handful of times over the years I’ve visited Tortilla Flats, it was because I couldn’t get into Barbuto and turned around and said, “I’m really hungry, I guess I’ll settle for Tortilla Flats.”
Did the restaurant — with its Sex and the City appearance and tired decor — feel dated? Certainly. But in providing a reasonable, if watered down, facsimile of Mexican food as eaten in Texas, at prices that folks not living in West Village townhouses could afford, it also provided a service and perhaps even an educational one. With its closure, there’s one less affordable restaurant with decent food not from a chain in the neighborhood.