Located at Tohono O’odham Swap Meet, you can't miss the colorful exterior.
To the naked eye, the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet is nothing more than your average street market.
And don’t get us wrong, the endless sea of vendors and wide selection of vintage novelties, clothes, tools, games, movies, and everything in-between is surely enough to make your neighborhood thrift shop lovers start to salivate a little bit.
However, an even closer look will reveal a hidden oasis, a diamond in the not-so-rough, of tucked away Mexican treats. Raspados, fresh-fried churros, tacos, tortas, and caramelos all abound in great supply.
It’s here, under a shady covering blasting classic folklorico jams, that you’ll find El Taco Rustico. It’s a swap meet staple that’s been serving up high-quality Mexican meals for several years.
Meet owner and Gastronomic Union of Tucson member, Juan Almanza
Owner Juan Almanza is certainly no stranger to the food industry. Outside of El Taco Rustico, he can be found cooking at other Tucson gastronomic highlights such as the Tucson Country Club and Hacienda Del Sol.
“I started working in restaurants when I was 17 — I’ve spent almost 35 years cooking,” Almanza said. He started at the swap meet four years ago making American breakfast dishes before transitioning to his current taqueria and joining the honorary ranks of local Mexican vendors.
Healthy competition produces mouth-watering meat selections
Almanza describes the menu creation process as a result of healthy competition between himself and the other nearby vendors; as more variety and newer meats were added by one, the other would respond by introducing it as well.
The result is a staggering selection of available carnes — from favorites such as asada, al pastor, and pollo to more uncommon but equally delicious options such as tripitas, chile rojo, cabeza, birria, and chicharron. The menu selection here is just as extensive as you’d find at any local taqueria in town.
In addition to its vast spread of tacos, it also contains burros, quesadillas, caramelos, tortas, and tostadas. The bar is equipped with freshly made salsa, tortilla chips, grilled cebollitas, and jalapenos.
Cooking techniques inspired by Coahuilan heritage
If you ask Almanza what gives his stand the kind of variety that you’re not likely to find elsewhere, he explains that his heritage plays a factor in his cooking style. While Tucson is known for its unabashedly Sonoran style when it comes to Mexican food, Almanza is from Coahuila. Coahuila is a Northeastern state in Mexico that borders Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua.
While this differentiation doesn’t completely uproot the Sonoran influence, he leans on it to use a different grilling style. The slow grilling prioritizes the use of low heat on a charcoal grill, allowing the meat to slowly ‘roast’ for hours without burning or turning the meat into a chewy jerky.
For clear evidence of the efficiency of this grill style, look no further than the costillas (Spanish for beef short ribs). Rather than the crunchy char that most taquerias offer with their short ribs, the meat is tender. It’s lightly seasoned to complement the flavor of the meat rather than distract from it.
You’ll be tempted to order a big plate of the costillas a la carte and devour it with your fingers. (The only people judging you will be the ones who haven’t tried it yet.)
Let’s talk about those tacos
Staying true to their name, of course, the tacos here certainly can’t be left unsung of praises.
The corn tortillas are soft but not crumbly, soaking in whatever savory flavor is placed upon them. The flour tortillas are traditionally held briefly over the flame before being served, which gives them an excellent crispy texture; we recommend eating them while they’re still warm!
The long list of carne options will ensure that anyone’s particular taste will be satisfied. Although, favorites are certainly al pastor, asada, tripitas, and of course the stellar costillas. With the addition of a full salsa bar, each patron will be able to customize the flavor of each dish as they please, adding additional sweetness or spice to their heart’s, and stomach’s, delight.
So the next time you’re looking for a shady spot to enjoy a cold Mexican coke and two or three (or four or five) tacos after a long morning of digging through swap meet bargains and knick-knacks, pay a visit to El Taco Rustico. And order the costillas, seriously.
Operating hours and location
El Taco Rustico is located at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays as well as Thursday evenings at Cafe Passe. They also cater and host private events. For more information, visit el-taco-rustico.ueniweb.com.