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El Carreton bringing new life, flavor to this abandoned restaurant
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Gainesville restaurateur Angel Retana is opening a second El Carreton location at the site of the former Sonic Drive-In location on Pearl Nix Parkway. - photo by Scott Rogers

More than a year after Sonic left with nary a trace, Gainesville restaurateur Angel Retana has his sights set on reviving the corner of Pearl Nix Parkway and Shallowford Road with Mexican street food. 

It isn’t a new restaurant, per se, but rather a longtime gem of Atlanta Highway staking its claim a little nearer to the heart of the city: El Carreton Taqueria.

Slated to open at 400 Pearl Nix Parkway by the first of the year, the forthcoming restaurant will be the second El Carreton to grace Gainesville with tacos and tortas. Its flagship taco stand — which won’t be going anywhere when the brick and mortar’s doors swing open — has been a fixture of Atlanta Highway for 27 years.

According to Retana, space — or the scarcity of it, rather — is the taco stand’s greatest hindrance in providing expedient service to its customers. With a full-sized restaurant boasting both a dining room and a drive-thru, he believes he’ll be better equipped to serve consistency on the double.

“The market now demands something faster than I can’t provide at my own taco stand,” Retana said. “Everything is so busy now in our lives that we just want to get some good food through a window, and that’s what we’re going to be doing. That’s what we’ve been doing for so many years at (the original) El Carreton, people just had to get out of the car and pick up the food. Now, they’ll be driving around to the window.”

Both locations will share the same menu, keeping things quick and simple, Retana said.

El Carreton’s growth is rooted in “very humble” beginnings, Retana said.

The taco stand opened with one bag of tortillas, one pound of meat, a couple of tomatoes and an avocado, Retana said, with the day’s total sales coming out to $19 dollars “in coins, not even dollars — just leftover change to put in the drawer.” But Retana said he “was super excited (and) not discouraged at all.”

“It was one day after another, one problem to another — fixing, learning and moving forward every single day,” he said. “It was more or less about learning every single day what not to do and how to make it better. We made so many mistakes in business — I tell everybody the first 25 years of my life was just learning what not to do. It’s just the way it is. You have to be able to understand that the process is what really makes a difference, not the idea. The idea is great (to) start something, but the process of how you accomplish that is more important.”

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Chorizo tacos at El Carreton are embellished with cilantro and diced onion and a side of green salsa, sliced radishes and lime. - photo by Rachel Estes

Today, Retana owns three businesses, all on Atlanta Highway. In addition to El Carreton, he’s the proprietor of Gainesville Seafood Market & Eatery and 787 Hacienda, a sports bar and event hall. 

Retana is also working to open Soco, a coastal seafood restaurant on the site of the old Denny’s on Browns Bridge Road. While no firm opening date has been set, Retana is targeting March or April of the upcoming year. 

“Like any other business, it takes time,” Retana said. “You have to create something from the bottom up. You’ve got to figure out what works, what doesn’t work. It takes time.”

Soco’s chef is slated to start working on recipes next month.

Retana got his footing in the restaurant business early on; as an infant, he’d doze under a counter in his grandmother’s restaurant in Mexico City while she and his mother tended to customers. 

Upon migrating to the United States, Retana started acquainting himself with every aspect of the industry, starting with dishwashing. But the thought of opening a restaurant of his own didn’t cross his mind until years later.

“I’ve always been in the restaurant business,” he said. “I never thought I was going to be owning restaurants. I never did it for that — I just did it because I loved what I was doing.”

The ingredients lending to his entrepreneurial success are simple: “Put your head down and take your time. Be humble. And, enjoy the process. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, don’t do it.”

“I still remember the first order I sold,” Retana reflected. “This guy walked up to the window and I sold him a taco. That moment, that feeling, is still here. I go back to it often. Everyone who has a business understands your first sale — the feeling that you get that someone actually bought something from you that you created. That’s the drive that makes us get up every morning and try our best.”

At 400 Pearl Nix Parkway, Retana aims to house three things: “Energy, consistency, love for what we do.” That, and “some great tacos.”