Photos by Ralph Freso
Juan Robles’ six employees all live in the neighborhood and walk to work at Juanderful Tacos, where a salt shaker is labeled "love" and a recipe "Mom's Green Salsa."
It’s a small taco shop on 37th Avenue and Camelback that carries his story of adjusting to find the right recipe for your life. It's also an example of Grand Canyon University graduates who took their education into the nearby neighborhood and started giving back.
Robles initially thought, after his parents came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a youngster, that one day he would help others with legal issues of immigration. So he majored in government with an emphasis in legal studies at nearby GCU.
He worked full time during college and graduated debt-free in 2018 after finishing an internship as a paralegal at a law firm and was ready to take his law school entrance exam. The immigration law firm sent him to Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities to gather personal stories of immigrants.
“It was emotional, I could see my parents in the same situation. I would come back crying,” he said.
He just couldn’t do it.
Robles instead began work as a claims adjuster for an automobile insurance company, where he sat in a cubicle “with a big corporate job making decent money ... But it wasn’t something I was passionate about.”
One Friday in 2020, watching the clock slowly click to 5, he filed the paperwork to create an LLC, “something to give myself a little more purpose.”
“It hit me. I love the kitchen. I love cooking. I love food. Growing up, that’s where my dad showed his love for me,” he said. “Being in the kitchen and making food, it’s like an extension of how I express my love.”
Juanderful Tacos remained just an idea for more than a year during the pandemic, when he turned to his wife, Evelyn, a GCU graduate in health care administration, and told her it was time. He was going to make some tacos and sell them in the backyard.
“We were both in a rut and being home, clocking out and sitting on the couch,” he said.
“Let’s do it.”
It was a Wednesday. They would make tacos and sell them on Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more stressed out in my life on that day,” Evelyn Gomez Robles said.
Family members pitched in, and they invited friends to try the tacos. They were a hit, and after a few backyard Saturdays, the couple soon bought a taco cart. They began selling on weekends outside a downtown bar, and in the parking lot outside Evelyn’s sister’s ice cream shop, Zion Latin Delights.
By the end of 2021, a space came open in the same little corner strip mall of mostly local businesses catering to the Latino community, two doors down from that ice cream shop. Robles’ parents borrowed money for them to buy equipment.
They swung the doors open in February 2022.
They decided to stick to a small menu, a handful of street taco options and a burrito, all made fresh every day, including mom's salsa.
“I didn’t know how before, but I learned to make tortillas,” Evelyn said. “Now I teach those that come in how to do it.”
Evelyn kept her full-time job filing claims for a medical insurance company, while Juan joined GCU as a student services counselor, working remotely with students on the East Coast from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then he heads to the taco shop.
“To immigrate to this country, my parents had to sacrifice a lot. My mom is college-educated, and she dropped it all to come here and clean toilets,” Juan Robles said. “So being able to have this restaurant, and for it to be a representation of who they are and what they’ve passed on, I feel like I am building a legacy — there is fruition to their sacrifice.”
That means some weeks are 100 hours.
“I have affirmations on my phone of the reasons why. On top of my list: ‘It’s bigger than me.’ It’s not just about me. For you and me to sit here today, we had to have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on up the family tree. Thousands of people came before us to have this conversation right now.
“When I think of that, I don’t take it lightly. I think about the people that came before me.”
He says he kept the prices low — $2.89 for a taco — because they are conscious of living in an immigrant community.
It’s something he heard as both a student and now a counselor at GCU, “that the big mission of GCU is to plant seeds in the neighborhood and see those seeds flourish.
“I took that personally. That is what we are doing here.”
He has six employees, all are immigrants. “That is six local families benefiting from it. So it’s very personal.”
The taco shop is bright and tidy with an outdoor patio strung with lights over three large picnic tables, popular with GCU students who can wander just a couple blocks down from campus and join local residents, especially on $2 taco Tuesday.
“My passions are for helping out the neighborhood community, for showing grace with what we do and how to conduct ourselves, and for food,” he said.
“That’s our story, man. It is hard. But people have the idea that you have to know what you are doing and have the assets and all the connections. Truth is, you just got to do it. Just do it and learn as you go. That could apply to wanting to be a better Christian or apply to starting a new hobby. Just fall in love with the process.
“I never have to live with 'what if.' I did it. Here we are, we’re hustling.”