Juan Chacon, a Mexican immigrant turned restaurant owner

Story and photo by KILEE THOMAS

Situated in Kearns, Utah, is the authentic Mexican restaurant, Acapulco. The family-run and -operated restaurant opened 1991 at its original location (just a few blocks away) before reopening at its current location at 4722 4015 West. 

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Acapulco Mexican restaurant is particularly known for its smothered burrito.

Juan Chacon, a 61-year-old Mexican immigrant, is the man behind the popular eatery, Acapulco. Chacon sat in a corner booth toward the rear of his restaurant.

The atmosphere has a homey and nostalgic feeling with its giant box TV screening the latest American football game, the tables filled with endless chips and salsa baskets and the walls covered with hanging swordfish, sombreros, original Hispanic paintings as well as a giant mural of the ocean that takes up the entirety of the back wall.

He looks around his restaurant with a warm smile before taking off his Houston baseball cap.

Chacon believed fate intervened with his journey to the United States. “It’s destiny, I guess,” Chacon said. He wasn’t escaping violence or seeking asylum. He saw it as a simple opportunity to live a different life.

He left his family farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1978 when he was 20 years old. He wasn’t searching for valued success, he was searching for purpose. “I didn’t need money, I wanna do something,” Chacon said.

He started working at a Chinese restaurant in Salt Lake City when he arrived in Utah before going back to his home town to spend time with his father for three months. When Chacon returned to Salt Lake City later that year, he landed a job at a Mexican restaurant where he worked the food line in the kitchen.

Chacon said this is where he learned how to run a restaurant. When he decided to leave the restaurant, he took a souvenir on his way out. “I stole the menu thinking, ‘one day I want to start my own restaurant,’” he said.

Chacon decided to open up the authentic Mexican restaurant with his brother to be his own boss and do things “my way,” he said. He reaches over, grabs the baseball hat and places it back on his head. “I believe to run a business, the first thing you have to do is work hard,” Chacon said.

He might be the owner, but he is also the dishwasher, cook, waiter and host. “I don’t get tired of working here everyday because I use to do this, but I use to do it for somebody else.” He points at the clock. “I can leave when I want, but I stay later than supposed to because I love talking with our customers.”

This type of friendly and outgoing energy is what’s kept Tiffanie and Rob Hargis loyal customers for the past 22 years. “We go at least one to two times a week. Their family always know when we are there and they come out to talk to us to see how we are doing,” she said.

The Hargises always make it a point to go to Acapulco for all of their family celebrations and get-togethers. “We have so many special memories tied to this restaurant. We have been going here for so many years after lacrosse practices and games, for birthdays and holidays,” Rob said.

Chacon and his family have built a special relationship with their customers. A relationship that goes past the usual bond between restaurant owner and customer; a relationship that feels more like family.

“When our parents passed away we gave them a huge picture for their wall that was in our parents’ house and it looks great in there. It’s like part of our family is there,” Tiffanie said. The southwestern picture of a pink sand-colored home and dusty pink sky is hung up in the back corner of the restaurant.

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Tiffanie and Rob Hargis donated the painting to the restaurant. Photo courtesy of Rob Hargis.

While the success of Chacon’s restaurant is something to be proud of, the journey that led him to where he is today wasn’t an easy one. It was costly.

When he first came to Utah, he bought a new $1,700 truck with the money that he had saved. The INS, otherwise known as ICE today, took away his truck after he was pulled over and asked for legal documentation.

Chacon paused for a moment. Becoming emotional from the pain of this memory, he said, “I still remember their faces.” Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath and shakes his head as if to shake away the memory.

“They told me it wasn’t my car anymore. It belongs to the U.S. Government.” Chacon said he remembers feeling hopeless because the officers warned him not to get lawyers involved. He said the agents told him it would be a useless ploy that would cost him more than what he’d already lost.

“In Mexico, they always talk about freedom in the U.S. and that day, I found out it wasn’t really true,” he said.

He smiles as a way to relieve the built-up emotion in the room.

“I still have the truck’s title,” he said with a laugh.

Chacon may believe that the restaurant and his life today is in thanks to some sort of  divine intervention or fate, but his beloved family and customers think his determination to learn, fight against adversity head on and to live life “his way” is the center and heart of why Acapulco is the favorite restaurant to so many, even 27 years later.