Chopper, a trippy, sci fi-themed tiki bar, has some of the best bar food in Nashville—even though it has no kitchen. Six nights a week, customers can order quesabirria tacos dripping with braised beef from the truck parked outside. Nothing on the menu costs more than $20, but the ingredients are of the highest caliber: American Wagyu from a farm in Kentucky, earthy tortillas made by hand daily.
“It was all about understanding what a fucking labor of love a tortilla is,” says chef-owner Julio Hernandez. And while the tortillas themselves are the stars of the show, Hernandez puts just as much love into each of the components. For the birria tacos, he braises beef shanks for hours, until the meat practically melts into a sublimely rich broth. “When you drink the consomé, there’s collagen and bone marrow in there,” he says.
Like most great tortilleros, Hernandez’s journey started with nixtamalized corn. In 2019, after years of working his way through fine dining kitchens run by the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Lidia Bastianich in New York, he became fascinated with the cuisine of his homeland.
“It took me to go through pasta and French cooking to come back to Mexico,” he says with a laugh. “I am from Tlaxcala, the smallest state of Mexico, which translates to ‘Land of bread, of corn.’ So I was raised in the land of corn.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic threw restaurants into chaos, Hernandez took a high-stakes gamble. “I think everyone freaked out in their own way,” he says. “I resigned my salary position and purchased with my stimulus check the meal to make my tortillas and 200 pounds of corn from Mexico.”
He still remembers going home to tell his wife, who promised to support him. “She cried and said, ‘Well, I’m using $100 of my stimulus check to buy margaritas because I need them.’”
Hernandez started selling fresh corn tortillas door-to-door to anyone within a 30-mile radius. “I had the advantage that the usual smoke-and-mirrors [of starting a restaurant] weren’t necessary at that time. I didn’t have to buy expensive chairs or plates,” he says. “So, for the first month, Maíz was born on Instagram by delivering tortillas to whoever would purchase them, $20 minimum, 30-mile radius.”
Gradually, word-of-mouth spread and he was able to set up shop at farmers’ markets. Then he got a bigger break. “We found Chopper because bars were not essential without food,” he says. Up until then, the tiki bar had been making do by serving grilled cheese sandwiches cooked on a George Foreman. Soon, Hernandez’s taco truck was parked outside six nights a week.
Fast-forward to the present and Maíz de la Vida has a serious local following of its own—not to mention a James Beard Semi-finalist nod. Hernandez also operates a tortilla shop and has a highly anticipated brick-and-mortar restaurant in the pipeline.
Know Before You Go
Look for Maíz de la Vida’s truck outside of Chopper Tuesday through Sunday. The truck is slinging tacos all afternoon and evening on weekends, or during the evenings on weekdays.