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Columbia chef David Grillo leaving taco spot Cantina 76, opening burrito restaurant

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David Grillo wouldn't be opening his own restaurant without Eddie Van Halen.

It was the summer of 1989, and he wanted to be like the guitar virtuoso, and thus needed a guitar. He was only 16, and he got a job at the South Carolina State Farmers Market working for Beck’s Snack Bar.

“I worked slinging hot dogs and hamburgers and listening to Metallica and Van Halen tapes on my headphones, I did that and bought my first guitar,” he told Free Times.

That experience led him to attempt a career playing in a metal band, but also started a decades-long journey as a chef, first leading kitchens in popular casual dining chains like Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s. Today, Grillo is best known for heading up the kitchens for Columbia-based chain Cantina 76 and its five locations scattered throughout the state.

But Grillo is now leaving Cantina to open his own take on the fast-casual burrito restaurants one can find in cities like Austin or Atlanta. He plans to open the roughly 40-seat Boca Grande Burritos by early April, after a short soft-opening period, at the former Happy Cafe space on Forest Drive.

“The goal is to create a quality burrito that is made from scratch that we’re highlighting and utilizing local ingredients when they’re available and to offer a value and a place for everyone,” he explained. “Those sort of small spots, one-stop, non-corporate locations that kind of nails it. They’re so few and far between in Columbia.”

“I don’t intend to take away any value from anyone in saying that,” he continued, and offered Tacos Nayarit and Real Mexico as comparison points in the city.

He also detailed that his inspiration for his forthcoming shop came in part from Cantina 76's chimichanga often winning the Best Burrito category in the Free Times' annual Best Of Columbia poll, but he doesn’t classify that dish as a true burrito.

With Boca Grande, Grillo plans to offer a bevy of braised meat options and will work in a kitchen that has no grills or other appliances — which require costly start-up investments like a kitchen hood. He said he’ll offer chicken, pork, shredded beef, house-made chorizo and a currently undetermined form of tofu, along with classic options like rice, potatoes and beans. He pointed to the large, mission burritos from California as a comparison for his fare.

Grillo is planning to offer options for those who can't eat dairy or gluten or have other dietary restrictions. He said he will also contemplate weekend specials, brunch and other additions based on customer feedback.

Above all, he is emphasizing affordability, which he posited is a must for the Columbia market.

“Good food should be enjoyed by all, not by some,” Grillo said. “My tagline is chef-driven food in a really fun environment at a fun price. If someone asked me what the market in Columbia is about, I’d say that.”

Grillo worked as the head of Cantina 76’s kitchens since it opened in 2009. He said that experience was good and there was no ill will in his departure.

In a statement, Cantina 76 partner Rob Ward underscored the smooth terms of the split, but didn't address the chain's plans moving forward.

“Chef Grillo has been with us from the beginning and his menu is loved by all of our Cantina 76 guests,” Ward said. “We only have great things to say about him and are sad to see him go, but we'll continue to support him in his future endeavors."

Grillo shared that he’s wanted to open his own restaurant for a long time and detailed that his experience putting into place kitchen “systems” successful for others made him feel ready to institute his own.

He also pointed to his past experience with chains like Applebees and his education through the American Culinary Federation.

“It teaches you patience, understanding the importance of doing your paperwork,” Grillo concluded. “To say you’re a chef means you can fabricate (dishes) from scratch, you can make money off of it consistently, you can train people consistently and you can mentor people to take your spot.”

Once opened, Boca Grande will be open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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