Community rallies to save brand-new El Taco Rústico

El Taco Rústico owner Juan Almanza had no choice but to open during the pandemic.

Times are dire for small businesses and local restaurants are desperately struggling to survive. Mestizo’s, a brand-new brick-and-mortar eatery that showed great promise, shuttered indefinitely. Many other businesses have fallen victim to the pandemic and it’s likely more will follow.

Juan Almanza had the unfortunate luck of having to open El Taco Rústico at what’s proving to be the least opportune time many of us have ever witnessed. In the face of this, members of the community are rallying to help him stay afloat.

Almanza had always dreamed of having a sit-down restaurant, having had a food stand at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet for more than four years, where he specialized in roasted costilla fajitas and bistec encebollado spiked with carne asada and bacon — among other dishes from his native La Laguna, Coahuila, Mexico.

Almanza had a substantial fan base at the swap meet. Customers lined up for his mesquite-grilled food. Now, though, the swap meet is closed.

Anthony “Rocco” DiGrazia, owner of Rocco’s Little Chicago, was one of those customers. He continues to patronize El Taco Rustico in its new location on Oracle Road just south of Grant Road.

“I’ve been eating (at Taco el Rustico) for a couple of years at the TO swap meet,” Rocco said. “I met Juan at GUT, the Gastronomic Union of Tucson. His slow-grilled meats are just as good or better than anyone’s in town, and usually more tender. I love Tacos Apson, but the meats at Rústico are a bit better. And he has a few items like the lorenzas I haven’t seen anywhere else in town.” (Lorenzas are corn tortillas topped with layers of carne asada and melty cheese. Almanza grills the tortillas over mesquite first.)

Costilla, Birria, Chicharrón en Salsa Roja, Chile Rojo, and Tripitas Tacos at El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet

Costilla, Birria, Chicharrón en Salsa Roja, Chile Rojo, and Tripitas Tacos at El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Rocco added that Almanza needs help more than most local restaurants because he just signed the lease for the building, which used to house Cafe Marcel, and because the swap meet was Almanza’s sole source of income.

“I have been saving money for years and finally signed the lease for El Rústico on March 1,” Almanza said. “We were looking at opening at the end of March or the beginning of April but when the swap meet closed we lost our only way to make money. Even though we were not ready, I opened the doors officially on March 21.”

One of the consequences of opening prematurely is that the usual marketing bursts were curtailed.

“I didn’t get a chance to tell my swap meet location customers that we were opening, and my website and Google page hadn’t been set up yet so no one knew how to find us,” Almanza said.

“I don’t want to quit, anyway. I just want to survive this month,” Almanza said. One of his strategies is to keep his prices low like they were at the swap meet, and to keep serving the same quality and variety of foods.

Local baker Jeff Grubbs is another devotee who first encountered Rústico at the swap meet.

“You can’t get tacos this good even if you spend twice the money anywhere else,” Grubbs said. Though he is responsibly socially distancing, Grubbs still supports the brick-and-mortar El Rústico by ordering curbside service.

Almanza and his small team of himself, his wife Cinthia, and one other employee are not set up for delivery. He credits the fact that he is still open to Mat Cable, who owns Fresco Pizzeria & Pasteria and First We Eat catering company. Cable is also a co-partner at Dante’s Fire.

Juan Almanza with costillas at El Taco Rustico at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Mat Cable is my angel. If he wasn’t here I couldn’t do this. He has put so many hours and money into my business,” Almanza said.

Cable said he met Almanza a little more than four years ago at Restaurant Depot in the chile section. “I wanted to make red chile sauce and I was just standing there staring at all the chile choices. I heard a voice — Juan’s — asking if I needed help. He proceeded to give me a 20-minute master class on chiles.”

They’ve been friends ever since.

“Anything I’ve ever needed, he’s just been there for me, and he was opening on a shoestring budget,” Cable said.

Along with Cable’s friend Carl Schultz — who among other things helped Almanza set up his Point of Sale system, and Josh Lamaro, who set up Rústico’s web site (with food photography donated by Jackie Tran), Cable donated his time as a consultant.

He helped Almanza with the monumental transition from swap meet stall to the developed restaurant. This rushed endeavor included everything from negotiating the lease, to crafting a chart delineating the order of operations for the opening, to acquiring insurance, to ensuring health code compliance.

“If anyone can make this happen, it’s Juan,” Cable said.

And he is – curbside, anyway – with lots of support from the Tucson community.

El Taco Rústico is located at 2281 N. Oracle Road. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Monday. Call (520) 623-3478 to place your to-go order. More info at tacorustico.com.

Angela Orlando is an anthropologist who owns Wandering Writers Workshops — retreats that take writers around the world. She’s into all things plant- and animal- and food-related, especially when cheese is somehow involved. She throws pottery and eats from her own handmade plates.

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