TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — One local chef recently opened a taco shop after 30 years of working at swap meets and dozens of Arizona restaurants. Chef Juan Almanza started cooking in Mexico at the age of 16. He worked at dozens of Mexican restaurants and would sell food at swap meets with his mom.
“It took me two weeks to learn almost everything about meats, grilling, steaks, and temperatures and everything,” Juan Almanza, founder and owner of El Taco Rustico.
In 2003, he moved to Tucson and became a local chef. But most of his success came from the Tohono O’odham Swapmeet.
“Since the first day I started making tacos there, it was like an explosion,” Almanza said.
He had dreams of starting his own restaurant, so in February 2020, he signed the lease to open El Taco Rustico. It was right when restaurants started closing down because of the pandemic.
“Everybody started talking about COVID," Almanza said. "The landlord told me, ‘You want to break the lease, you can break the lease, no problem. You can have the money.’”
But Almanza had other plans.
“I said no, I’m going to do it," Almanza said. "Whatever happens, I’m going to make it.”
It was a daunting task that Almanza says he couldn't have done alone.
“He just calls me one day and he’s like, ‘Hey, they closed the swap meet so I guess I'm open.’ I'm like what?" Mat Cable, Owner of Zio Peppe. "I think we maybe had the sign painted, there wasn’t a menu, there wasn’t a point of sales system.”
Dozens of chefs in the Gastronomic Union of Tucson banded together to help his business grow. They advised Almanza on licensing, equipment, menus, and even helped create his website.
“That support, it’s just like a support system that’s always there,” Cable said.
Almanza says El Taco Rustico is now making around $3000 a day. Next year, he hopes to open a brunch place in Marana.
“This was my dream," Almanza said. "Since I was 16 when I start cooking at the swap meets in Mexico, I always wanted a place like this.”
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