Tacos Don Rafa has been a steady fixture on the corner of State Street and 800 South in Salt Lake City for a quarter of a century.
The downtown staple outlasted its former neighbor, Sears, as well as some competing taco carts. It survived the 2008 recession, a pandemic and even an attempt from a neighboring restaurant chain to remove it — but will it make it through redevelopment of the former Sears building? Owner Jesus Rosas Alcanta says there's no doubt.
"As long as the city allows us to stay here, we'll be here. I'll celebrate 25 years on this corner in February," he said in Spanish. "Whoever comes to Salt Lake City and doesn't try Tacos Don Rafa, doesn't know the city — because we're part of Salt Lake City."
Salt Lake City spokeswoman Molly Farmer confirmed that regardless of what Intermountain Healthcare plans to build at the site, purchased in 2021, there is no reason the cart would have to move.
"Since the carts have been operating there and (are) established, they are grandfathered in," Farmer said about Tacos Don Rafa and a nearby cart. "The city has a great working relationship with the owners, and there's no plans to make any changes."
What is uncertain is the longevity of Tacos Don Rafa's parking and seating area. Rosas currently rents the eastern part of the property's parking lot (a deal that was passed on to Intermountain Healthcare by the property's previous owner).
Intermountain spokesman Jess Gomez confirmed the arrangement will continue during the old Sears building demolition. However, the State Street entrance to the lot will be closed for safety purposes. Instead, customers will be able to access Tacos Don Rafa's parking and seating from 800 South. Rosas said he is in conversations with the major health care nonprofit to see if there's a possibility of a similar rental deal in the future.
Gomez said that since Intermountain is still developing plans for the area, it's still too early to know how construction will affect Tacos Don Rafa. Intermountain began demolition at the property earlier this month.
Growing a family legacy
Twenty-four years ago, Rosas gambled on a new concept — something as quick and affordable as McDonalds but much more authentic and fresh. He would open the type of taco stand that was popular throughout Mexico and California but what he called a first for Utah. When he initially went to the city with plans, he remembers staff members asking him, "What's a taco stand?"
Rosas closed down two restaurants he owned at the time and focused his efforts on the State Street taco cart. When it came time to pick a location, Rosas didn't worry too much.
"Nothing more than I said, 'Here' — like when you spin a globe and you say where will I go on vacation?'" Rosas said, adding that he stayed at the location because of how busy State Street is and the parking and bathrooms available at Sears.
The gamble paid off. Tacos Don Rafa recently opened a food truck in Bountiful, in addition to its original State Street location. The business has also offered catering, and Rosas said its clients range from wedding planners to Delta Air Lines, DHL, Salt Lake City and former Gov. Jon Huntsman.
"Tacos Don Rafa is for everyone, " he said. "For people who work in construction, for people who work in offices, for low-income and wealthy people — they come here."
Despite the business's success and the fact that Rosas grew up in Colima, Mexico, watching his own father sell tacos; owning a taquería wasn't something Rosas had ever planned on.
"I never imagined that I would be making tacos. I studied and graduated in Mexico; I had a career there. But you never know what's waiting for you around the corner," he said. "Our bodies, our minds, are like a computer. In my internal software, I have memories of my dad making salsa, meat and all of that... When you least expect it, you look in your software and you find the truth."
The name Tacos Don Rafa is a nod to those memories of his father, Rafael Rosas, who was known as Don Rafa. As Rosas has grown the business from the ground up, he's continued to make memories for his own family as well as others.
"The children of my clients who have come before tell me, 'When I was little, my father used to bring me here and now that I have my own kids, I bring them,'" Rosas said. "This is something that makes me very happy."
He says the secret to his long-term success is family. Unlike some of his competitors, Tacos Don Rafa is open from 10 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year — come rain, snow or sunshine. Someone from the family — a brother, cousin, son or daughter — will cover the cart, no matter what.
"I've seen five or six taqueros on this corner. I'm here because we're all family. My brothers, my kids — we all work and we all have the enthusiasm to work. We earn a living here, so it's important for us to be here," he said. "The people know that if you're hungry at 11 o'clock at night, we're open. If you come at 6 p.m., 10 a.m., we're open. If it's snowing a lot, we're open. People know we're here every day."
Rosas' family is also the motivation behind the business's recent expansion into Bountiful as well as a brick-and-mortar location Rosas is planning in Millcreek.
"We decided to grow after 25 years. Why? Because my kids now have kids, they're adults now," he said. "Before I could support them from here, but now they need to support their own families. We're growing as a family, and we're growing as a business."