When Jesus Rosas opened the first taco stand in Utah, he named it after his father, Rafael — known affectionately as Don Rafa — who was the first in the family to aspire to the American dream.
That cart, Tacos Don Rafa, was set up in 1998 at 798 State St. in Salt Lake City, in front of what was the Sears department store. The cart is still there, 25 years later, though the Sears building has been demolished.
“When Jesus started this journey, there were no mobile food stands allowed on the sidewalks,” said Jesus’ son, Christian Rosas. “In a way, all street vendors have to be grateful and give credit the Don Rafa taco stand as a godfather of taco cart stands, because we have evolved and raised the bar of how street food has to be done and how to open one.”
Tacos Don Rafa has expanded, with a second cart at 2301 S. Main in Bountiful — and, as of last month, the business’ first brick-and-mortar location, at 3804 S. Highland Drive in Millcreek.
“You might be asking, ‘Why wait 25 years to expand the business till today?’” Jesus Rosas said. He said he’s approaching retirement age, and his two oldest sons, Christian and Jesse, are in their early 30s — old enough to take on the business, and they “have all the time, power and youth to continue the legacy for another 25 years.”
Jesus Rosas isn’t relaxing, though. He oversees the company’s event planning. Also, he said, the family has plans to open two more Utah locations — he has some ideas where, but “it all depends on the next survey we make to see where the most customers and future taco lovers are.”
He’s also talking about opening a restaurant in their hometown — Manzanillo, a city on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast — and possibly in Dubai.
“We believe that the United States was only the start,” Jesus Rosas said. “Who knows where the next generation will take us.”
Each of the business’ current locations has something a little different from the others, Christian Rosas said. The original cart has the traditional tacos, burritos and quesadillas. The Bountiful cart has tortas, and the sit-down location in Millcreek is introducing Mexican pizza (ranging from $10 to $12).
In Manzanillo, Christian Rosas said, “we used to sell pizzas, and we were very popular with the people because we focused on the people for the people,” he said. “In Mexico, you have to understand that eating a good loaded pizza is expensive, and most people can’t afford it. So we made a completely new concept that would let our price range pizza include fully loaded toppings and meats.”
Tacos Don Rafa’s Mexican pizza, Christian Rosas said, includes taco meats and other toppings — with the signature touch, “the cherry on the top of each slice,” is handmade chimichurri.
The business’ success goes back to making good, affordable food. The burritos, with various protein options, are $6 — and so are the steak quesadillas. The street tacos are $1.50 a piece.
How is a street taco different from other kinds of taco? A street taco is about the size of one’s palm, has the right toppings, and can be eaten in two bites. Most people order more than one.
The Rosas family plans to keep the original cart on State Street going. Intermountain Health acquired the property, and last year filed paperwork to rezone the area “to accommodate a new downtown urban hospital,” The Tribune reported in November.
Jesus Rosas said the family has worked out a deal with Intermountain Health to stay in their coveted spot.
“We are here to stay, … because we have our business licenses with the Salt Lake City Council and also sidewalk permits, which we always renew every year, following all regulations and honoring all rules,” Christian Rosas said, adding that the cart “has been part of Salt Lake City’s transformation in how food is experienced.”