It’s hard to separate Elmer Cuen from the Mexican food restaurant he started 40 years ago — the restaurant that with his effort, personality, and food has captured the hearts of Chandler residents.
Elmer’s Tacos opened in 1974 at the corner of Erie Street and Arizona Avenue, which is directly across the street from Chandler High School. In 1985, it moved just a few buildings south, and it has been a fixture in Chandler ever since.
“Honestly, I consider myself lucky,” Cuen said. “Since I opened, I’ve seen so many places close up. I’ve thought, ‘What are we doing that they’re closing up and I’m still here?’”
Cuen said he worked hard to be friendly to Chandler High students who would cross the street to buy the then 75-cent special: a bean burrito, small strips, aka chips with cheese, and a drink.
“I couldn’t let kids go hungry if I saw anybody not eating,” he said. “I’d be like, ‘Hey, come here. Pay me tomorrow.’”
Cuen said his mother always taught him “if (someone) doesn’t have it, give it to them because eventually you’ll get it back.” His mother also inspired his recipes, which he tweaked to fit his customers’ tastes.
“I like my food,” he said. “I think I like it better than anyone else.”
Those students who came to Elmer’s for lunch are some of his biggest customers now. They have been drawn in by the food and the amiable man behind the counter.
Cuen said he has always worked to be extra friendly to customers, even though his outgoing attitude comes off as effortless.
“I haven’t seen you in God knows how long,” he said to a customer after she had ordered.
“Where have you been hiding?” the customer shoots back.
It’s all part of his personality, one that he works hard to cultivate, Cuen said.
Since he opened Elmer’s Tacos, everywhere Cuen goes people recognize him from his work in the store.
“When I first started, I didn’t know anyone,” he said. “Then it seemed like all of a sudden half the town knew me. Everywhere I went, everyone was like, ‘Hi Elmer! Hi Elmer!’”
Even though Cuen is a respected member of the community, he has worked hard to get to where he is today. Cuen grew up in the Los Angeles area after immigrating from Sonora Mexico in 1951. In Los Angeles he worked at a lot of pizza shops and delis before becoming a tire salesman for Uniroyal — a job where he developed his ability to talk to people.
“I have the gift of gab,” he said. “I didn’t speak English, but I could speak.”
Cuen moved his family to Chandler in 1972, where he started trying to find a location for a business.
“I got tired of working for other people,” he said. “I was good at what I did … but whatever I did, I did good for someone else.”
After trying unsuccessfully to sell tacos in several locations, Cuen quit his job and gave himself 2 1/2 months to find a space for his shop. When he was about to give up, he found an old restaurant to move into.
Since starting the small restaurant, Cuen has developed regulars and a fan base that expands across the country. Lisa Cuen, manager at Elmer’s and Cuen’s daughter, said her father is what has allowed the restaurant to stay in business.
“It’s Elmer. It’s his personality. It’s his food,” she said. “He cares about everything in this place, about the quality of the food, and about his employees. Everything combined has made it explode.”
Another factor in Cuen’s success is the customers; many have been coming to the shop since they were children or teenagers.
“It’s like going home at Christmas or going to your parent’s house,” Lisa said. “People have been coming here for so long. It’s home for them. It’s normal. It doesn’t change.”
Kyle Dana said he started coming to Elmer’s when he was a kid and has never stopped. Dana, who lives in Oregon, had been in Chandler for about an hour and had already made his way to Elmer’s.
“I have to say the red beefy cheese tortilla is why I keep coming back,” he said.
After 40 years operating the restaurant, Cuen is preparing his children to take over the restaurant, but he said he is having a hard time being less involved in the day-to-day work.
“I try not to butt in, but I go in and check on this and check on that,” Cuen said. “It’s like having a baby. It’s my own little baby.”
• Shelby Slade is a sophomore at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is an intern with the Tribune this semester. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.