Three guys who grew up in Columbia County have become a success story in the restaurant business after they opened their first southwest-style Mexican restaurant in Augusta four years ago.
Diablo’s Southwest Grill is the creation of brothers Brandon Wall and Brad Wall and their longtime friend Carl Wallace. Carl and Brad already worked together and have owned Augusta Granite Company in Grovetown since before they decided to branch out into the restaurant business several years ago. When Carl and Brad pitched Brandon the idea to open a restaurant, he was all in — even though they didn’t have a whole lot of previous experience in restaurants.
“We went to all the trade shows learning about the restaurant industry,” Brandon said. “Carl and I had previously both worked in the restaurant industry, but it was only for brief periods of time.”
The three opened Diablo’s with the plans of eventually franchising, and franchising they have. Their flagship store on Wheeler Road opened not even five years ago, and the chain already is opening its ninth location, this week in Columbia, South Carolina. Plans are in the works for more locations.
What makes the fast-casual Mexican food taste so special is what Brandon calls the “heat,” or spices infused in the food — spices that have origins in Texas. But not to worry — it’s not an overpowering heat.
“I think we’re so popular because we’re able to cater to a very broad audience from the people who like over-the-top heat with our ghost pepper cheese and spicy sour cream and peach habanero sauce,” said co-owner Brandon Wall, who is head of operations. “But then the grandmothers that come in that just want a ground-beef taco salad, the ground beef is not so over-the-top spiciness. So we are able to serve a wide array of customers, from every heat level tolerance.”
Co-owner Carl Wallace is responsible for most of the recipes at Diablo’s. He spent some time in Texas learning as much as he could about the Mexican food out there.
“Really (the recipes) came from spending time in Dallas learning the regional flavors,” Carl said. “Learning what was the consistent menu items, what was the flavor profile that we should develop? And I read cookbook after cookbook of true southwest flavors, and the ingredients in true southwest food.”
One point of pride for the co-owners is that everything is made fresh in house, right in front of the customer.
“We locally source our chicken and use certified Angus beef,” Carl said. “All our hot sauces, we make in house. All our produce is cut fresh daily. We cook our chicken and steak over apple wood, so we’re cooking it with a flame and cooking it with smoked wood.”
Brandon’s brother, Brad Wall, oversees the construction and interior of the restaurants — and is a self-described taste-tester. The rustic décor of the restaurants is reminiscent of restaurants in Texas.
“We put a lot of emphasis on the interior of the store,” Brad said. “We want the store to be a comfortable and fun atmosphere. It’s not just a place to sit down and eat great food, but it’s an environment that you actually want to be in.”
For anyone who’s used to food in Texas, Diablo’s is a welcome treat. And not to worry if extremely spicy isn’t your thing — it’s more that the spices equal flavor, rather than a burning mouth. The burritos are so big that they don’t look possible to finish in one sitting, but the flavors make it possible to eat every bite. Customers can add things like pinto or black beans, spicy (or regular) sour cream, corn salsa, cilantro lime or Spanish rice, housemade guacamole and pico de gallo. The guacamole tastes so fresh, it’s like it had been made just before ordering.
The entrees are served with chips, and Diablo’s has a salsa bar with hot, mild and salsa verde.
Besides burritos, Diablo’s also serves burrito bowls, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, salads and kids meals. Meat choices include chicken, beef, steak or pork. Any of the entrees are customizable for vegetarians, with the option of getting tofu or veggies instead of meat.
When asked what menu item he’s most proud of, Brandon said, “That’s like asking somebody to pick their favorite child. They’re all our recipes; it took us a long time to dial them in. At one point, we had so much heat in our ingredients that it was just lighting people’s mouths on fire, so we had to dial it back a touch. But we’re always listening to our customers, and we appreciate the feedback to only make us better. Because what we may like or what we think somebody may enjoy isn’t always reality when you’re serving a large customer base. So we’ve always tweaked our recipe based on conversations, and the end result is what you have. And we pride ourselves on keeping our product consistent, from store to store.”
The co-owners have branched out their brand through franchises, but they have more corporate stores planned for the Augusta area, looking to eventually open one in south Augusta and at Washington Road/I-20. Their plans for now are to focus on growing their brand in the southeast of the U.S., with some stores already planned in Alabama.
Diablo’s also offers catering, and they’ve catered events spanning from 30 or 40 people all the way up to 3,500.
The three guys are happy that what they’ve created seems to keep getting more popular.
“I’m proud of being able to create a brand from the bottom up,” Brad said. “The dream that started just as one store has grown into multiple stores. It was definitely a shot in the dark.”