3 October, 2022, 04:35

The life and times of El Taco Rustico’s Chef Juan Almanza

From Swap Meet staple to Brick-and-Mortar

Grab a seat and let us tell you a story of resilience.

He didn’t know at the time, but owner and chef Juan Almanza had the unfortunate luck of opening El Taco Rustico at what proved to be the least opportune time to do so: March 2020.

Spending plenty of time at other Tucson gastronomic highlights such as the Tucson Country Club and Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, Almanza had bigger dreams — to have his very own sit-down restaurant.

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Having had a food stand at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet for almost five years, he felt it was time that he made that next step into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It seemed fitting to take the leap. Why not garner an even wider audience for the specialized dishes he’d grown to love while living in the northeastern state of La Laguna, Coahuila, Mexico?

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

A chef is born

Let’s take a few steps even further back in time, though, and shine a light on where it all began. Almanza credits his heritage for playing a major role in his cooking style. The inherited techniques passed down to him were something he learned at a very young age — before he was even a teenager.

“I’ve been cooking all my life,” said Almanza. “I started my cooking skills in Mexico when I was about 12 years old. People started coming to me because I could cook much differently than others in the area. When it comes to Mexican food, it’s different for everybody.”

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Just follow your nose

Fast forward a few decades and Almanza found himself offering his treasures at the Tohono O’odham Swap Meet.

“I was catering a party and brought some leftover tripas and carne asada to the Swap Meet,” said Almanza. “People went crazy with my tacos on that very first day.”

Some folks heard of the taco stand by word of mouth, while others stumbled upon it by following the scent of burning mesquite wood and smoked meat. A lot of food was coming off of the grill and Almanza’s costillas — slow-cooked beef ribs — were just one of the many types of offerings that sparked his following.

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Makin’ moves

In February 2020, Almanza began negotiations with the landlord who oversees the building at 2281 N. Oracle Rd., which previously housed Cafe Marcel. By the time March 2020 came around, COVID was crowding the headlines and creating a lot of concern during that unforeseen time of unpredictability.

Almanza, his wife Cinthia, and the rest of the team were given the chance to cancel the agreement and forget about opening the restaurant’s doors near the corner of Grant and Oracle Road. However, they decided to keep moving forward with their vision. During that time of uncertainty, they knew one thing was for certain and that’s the confidence they’ve got in their quesabirria tacos.

“My landlord asked if I wanted to break the lease since things were getting really tough,” said Almanza, “But I told him ‘I’m going to make it.’ I knew that whatever happens, I was there and we did our best.”

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

And now? Well, with plenty of help from the Tucson community, fellow chefs, and ravenous appetites, Almanza and the team behind the savory tacos have overcome the odds of opening a restaurant smack dab at the beginning of the pandemic.

To put it into perspective, he’s making 100,000 quesabirrias a year — if not more.

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Evolution in the menu

Goodness, it’s hard not to support these tacos.

The corn tortillas are soft but not crumbly. They’re strong enough to withstand both juices from the ingredients that fill them and the ones they’re dipped into. Then there’s the flour tortillas at El Taco Rustico, which are held over a flame for a brief moment before being served, creating an end product with a crispy texture.

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

While there are many items on the menu now considered El Taco Rustico classics, it has had some tweaks along the way, including the addition of vegetarian and keto options.

“Yeah, I’ve always tried to change the menu often, but the way we’re selling everything makes it difficult sometimes,” said Almanza. “I’ve added a couple of things, though, for those who don’t eat meat.”

A few of the non-meat dishes, labeled as Vegetarian Meats on the menu, include Calabacitas, Huevos con Vedura, Nopales con Chile Colorado, Rajas con Queso, and Calabacitas con Queso. 

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Down on the farm

Whether it be behind the grill in the kitchen, or at home on his farm where he raises chickens and goats, Almanza is always doing his darndest to live life to the fullest.

“It’s something that I’ve always liked doing with my mom,” Almanza laughed, reminiscing about his time growing up in La Laguna, Coahuila, Mexico. “I always had a little farm with chickens, goats, and others. So, I bought some land right here in downtown so I can raise my goats — I have about 15 goats now! It’s like my personal and perfect little hobby.”

El Taco Rustico

(Photo by Anna Smirnova)

Overcoming the obstacles

To wrap it up, resilience is key when it comes to owning a successful business, and that’s especially so when referring to a local restaurant. With the help of quesabirria aficionados, an outpouring of love from the community, and the drive to become one of Tucson’s most beloved taco shops, the story of El Taco Rustico is an admirable lesson in committing to what you believe in.

El Taco Rustico is located at 2281 N. Oracle Rd., and is open 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. on Tuesday – Saturday and 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call (520) 623-3478 or visit tacorustico.com

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At a very young age, Matt was gifted with the artistic ability to masterfully roll a burrito to the highest of standards.

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