Gloria Baldez, left, the chef at Anita’s Street Market, and owner Gracie Soto, right, work together to preserve the iconic eatery.

Grace Soto had only one rule: you can’t be angry or in a bad mood when you make her red chile.

That’s what she told her granddaughter, Gracie, as she quietly watched her make a pot of her famous red chile, testing her skills before passing down the torch.

Grace’s red chile is more than just a stew; it’s a symbol in Barrio Anita. The shredded beef smothered in a rich, red chile sauce and wrapped tightly in a giant tortilla has brought people together for decades.

Whether you were riding by on a bike or traveling from New York City, you could count on Anita’s Street Market, to feed you a good, home-cooked burrito, making you feel like family as soon as you stepped inside.

For the past few years, Gracie has taken on the institution that is Anita’s Street Market, making tough decisions along the way, including shutting down the market for a while.

But at the end of March, the smell of freshly made flour tortillas filled the air of Barrio Anita again, signaling that Gracie’s back — and she’s not going anywhere.

“I'm fighting for something that is real,” Gracie said. “This is my home and this is a home to many people.”

Anita's Street Market, 849 N. Anita Ave., got its start in 1982, initially selling candy, beer and cigarettes.

Back in the ’30s, the iconic building located on 849 N. Anita Ave. was a Chinese market. Fast forward to 1982 when Grace and Mario Soto decided to rent that very market, selling items like candy, beer and cigarettes.

Soon, the couple grew tired of the constant break-ins and robberies for their beer. That’s when Mario thought it would be a better idea to obtain a food permit and start selling Grace’s burritos.

Burritos became a staple on the menu, but Mario had another great idea. Instead of buying the tortillas, they could start making the tortillas themselves since they had a family recipe they could use.

“I don't think he understood what he started when he did that, but it was a blessing to them because it really became something great,” Gracie said.

From then on, all the tortillas were made by hand. The couple also had no machinery they could use, taking an old stove from Grace’s former workplace that was put out on the curb. That stove still sits in Anita’s to this day.

Gloria Baldez, a chef at Anita's Street Market for 14 years, stretches out tortilla dough inside the kitchen.

Red chile, green chile, tamales, machaca, beans and rice were all on the menu as the couple continued to work hard to achieve their dreams.

One day, a gentleman walked into the store and told Mario he wanted to lease them some tortilla-making equipment like mixers and machines that would cut the dough, Gracie said. Despite Grace’s protests, Mario decided to lease two machines.

Business began to really take off and Anita’s tortillas could be found around town at different local restaurants and markets. Then, they got news from the landlord: he wanted to sell the building.

Without the money to buy the building, the couple began to pack things up, which meant Mario had to return the machines to the man he leased them from.

“The guy said, ‘Mario, do not be stupid. Take advantage. You're ready,’” Gracie recalled.

Although Mario wanted to continue, he knew they couldn’t afford it. He thanked the man for believing in him.

A few days later, Grace was going through the mail when she found a letter addressed to them. Inside the envelope was a $60,000 check from the man so they could buy the building.

The man refused to take the money back, telling the Sotos that they could pay him back once they had the money. He knew they had something special in their hands — and he was right.

Over the years, Anita’s Street Market continued to flourish, with Mario and Grace working hard to make sure their business would continue to thrive, eventually paying back the man in full.

As the market grew, so did the Soto family.

Mario and Grace’s daughter had Gracie, who would soon crawl around the market, watching her sisters get ready for school in the bathroom.

As Gracie got older, her grandparents taught her everything she needed to know about running the market. She was learning how to master the register, do payroll, make and cut the masa and cook the famous red chile.

“She said, ‘I just hope that if you ever do make my red chile, you're not in a bad mood or mad or sad, that you're happy only when you make it,’” Gracie said of her grandmother. “She felt that a lot of your emotions go into how your food comes out.”

Growing up in the market, Gracie saw firsthand how her grandparents helped the neighbors in Barrio Anita. If someone needed food, they would be there with a warm burrito. Every Christmas, they would pass out goody bags and toys to children in need, making sure everyone had a gift in their hands.

Gracie and her grandparents were inseparable. They worked in the market together every day, gaining popularity from people all over the state thanks to their tortillas and red chile.

While business was booming, Mario became very sick. He died in 2008.

A photo of Anita's Street Market founders Grace and Mario Soto hangs above the entrance in Anita's Street Market.

“I remember that day when he left, it's like he knew he was leaving,” Gracie said. “He was in a walker, he was on dialysis and he was very, very sick. He stood in the walkway between the kitchen in the front of the building. He looked around and he shook his head. I caught him. I don't think he knew that anybody was looking at him. I think he was telling himself, like, you did a good job.”

The morning he passed away, Gracie remembers her grandmother walking up to him, giving him the sign of the cross, thanking him for his perseverance and telling him she’d be back after work. She knew Mario would want her to continue to uphold the place he fought so hard to get up and running.

“I witnessed the strength of my grandmother right then and there,” Gracie said.

Grace and Gracie carried on, working hard to make sure Anita’s Street Market continued to put a smile on their customers’ faces.

But just like the rest of the world, things came to a screeching stop in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made things difficult for small businesses everywhere, and Anita’s had to adapt to the new normal.

They decided to do curbside pickup and Gracie advised her grandmother to stay home for her safety. But Grace had other plans.

“She tells me, ‘I'm 80 years old, who are you to tell me what to do?’” Gracie said. “She said, ‘You think I'm scared? The only thing or only person I'm afraid of is my Diosito and that’s it. If I want to see my customers or say hi, I'm going to see my customers and say hi.’”

Nothing could stop Grace from doing what she loved: serving Barrio Anita. Anita’s Street Market kept on, until Grace got sick.

When Grace couldn’t taste a drink that Gracie had made for her, she knew her grandmother had COVID-19. Grace spent time in the hospital and after two weeks of fighting, she was tired, Gracie said.

Gracie and her family were able to visit Grace to say their goodbyes.

“We were super, super, super close,” Gracie said. “I was named after her. We were just like yin and yang and letting her go was hard. But I remembered how strong she had to be. So I said, I got to be that woman.”

A photo of Anita's Street Market founders Grace and Mario Soto sits behind the front counter.

Just like her grandmother did years before, Gracie knew what she had to do: get to work. She knew the ins and outs of the market and was determined to make her grandparents proud by continuing their legacy.

She soon realized that her grandparents were keeping a lot of the stress and struggles of running a business away from her.

She was hit with an overwhelming tax lien on their property, saying the accountants her grandmother trusted were taking advantage of her. As a result, she had to make the tough decision to close the market while she tried to figure out how to sort their financial issues.

Over the next three years, the market’s future became fuzzy. Gracie stopped foreclosures, fixed kitchen problems and dealt with the possibility of having their building auctioned. After hustling hard and trying to deal with all the issues by herself, Gracie turned to the community that she and her family had been serving for decades.

“I had only a few options left,” Gracie said. “Believe me, I fought hard to not do a GoFundMe. It was not something I was OK with. I couldn’t find it in myself to ask for help. I know it sounds crazy, but when you're a prideful Chicana and you keep saying, I can do it...”

Gracie Soto, the granddaughter of Grace and Mario Soto is continuing her grandparents' legacy.

With the help of the GoFundMe and a Christmas fundraiser late last year, Gracie was able to save the building. This time, she was going to put in everything she had to make sure Anita’s doesn’t go anywhere.

Gracie opened Anita’s Street Market back up in March after a months-long closure, quietly announcing their return on Instagram. She pretty much runs the cash register and cooks by herself, receiving help from volunteers and friends that feel like Anita’s is their home.

For this new chapter, Gracie is working on adding some new and exciting features to the classic Anita’s menu. She’s been working on a new coffee menu, which is launching at their Cinco De Mayo celebration, so you can enjoy an iced horchata latte while you scarf down your chorizo burrito.

She also wants to hold more neighborhood events on their patio, including a Mother’s Day masterclass on how to make the perfect flour tortillas. She even had a new mural painted on their back wall that depicts an Indigenous warrior, which represents Gracie, surrounded by butterflies, which represents her grandparents.

We may even see a tortilla subscription box in the future, so people out of state can finally taste the goodness that is Anita’s flour tortillas.

Gracie Soto, the granddaughter of the Anita's Street Market founders Grace and Mario Soto, takes a customer's order.

With the wheels in motion, Gracie is putting her heart and soul into making sure Anita’s Street Market continues to serve the Tucson community for years to come. Despite the ups and downs, Anita’s is Gracie’s home, and she’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“It is exhausting mentally, physically, but it's so worth it when my customers come in and I forget about all of that,” Gracie said. “All of a sudden, everything that went I through, it just disappears. Being here at the store and actually being able to serve my customers and talk to them, that's the most beautiful and fulfilling thing in the whole wide world. The stories that they share with me and the conversations that we have, there's nothing like it, it doesn't get any better than this. So, all the struggles that I went through were really worth it.”

Anita's Street Market is open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

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Jamie Donnelly is the food writer for #ThisIsTucson. Contact her via e-mail at