A caravan may suggest impermanence but Venezuelan Juan Gomez — the face behind the counter of Juantanamera, the mobile latin food eatery parked down the end of Electric Avenue — doesn’t intend moving on from Raglan anytime soon.

“You know more people, you have roots in the ground,” says Juan philosophically in his strong Spanish accent. His unusual takeaways business may have been open barely six months but he and partner Maria Rotella have lived here permanently now for exactly a year after visiting regularly since 2006.

And the couple, who have a two-year old daughter, reckon they’ll give it a full seven years — and then “see what we do”.

Juan, 38, has perfected the art of making the cornmeal arepas and tacos he sells every day from the black-painted caravan at the end of the avenue, a narrow lane of shops running off Wainui Road.

The caravan first appeared there last summer but it wasn’t until August that Juantanamera was up and running. Business started slowly while Juan learnt the trade and tried out recipes to see how people would react.

“It’s such a different flavour from what you guys have in town,” he explains, “but it’s become very popular.”
Arepas and tacos are “very classic” in Venezuela, Juan tells the Chronicle, and everything on site is made from scratch. “This is the real deal,” he insists.

Fresh-made tortillas are what you get, he says — no yeast, gluten-free and cooked on a grill so it’s “pretty healthy” too.

His best seller is spicy chorizo. “People love it and it’s also my favourite. I don’t know if it’s my Spanish blood but I love the chilli.”

All Juan’s recipes come from Hacienda El Portete, a hotel he was managing in his hometown back in Venezuela. He reckons he had a close view of what was happening in hospitality, including in the kitchen.

So he was ready to quit his Auckland job as a sales rep for Escape Rentals when locals Tony Bruce and Andrew McGregor of Raglan Roast came up with the idea a couple of years back for a new business in town.

A “food show” in the Volcom office downtown was arranged, explains Juan, which gave away 150 arepas cooked upstairs on a gas barbecue for people to try. The success of that trial led to the addition of Juantanamera as a fast food alternative to Raglan’s thriving café scene — the ‘J’ of Juan’s name replacing the ‘G’ of the popular Latin American song Guantanemera.

It was back in 2006 that Juan and Maria “fell in love” with Raglan. They’d been backpackers on a working holiday in the South Island two years before and, on returning to the country, based themselves in Auckland where Maria scored a graphic design job.

After a chance meeting with a fellow Venezuelan who happened to have a holiday house here in Stewart Street, the couple started coming to Raglan every summer and long weekends. So shifting to Raglan was a natural progression.

They love the town’s lifestyle. Juan says Raglan’s not unlike the small town of Choroni where he’s from — also an “end of the road” kind of place, where people hold onto their holiday homes while working in the city nearby.

Edith Symes