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New vegan restaurant challenges traditional Mexican food

GuacStar hopes to combine local vegan cuisine with traditional Mexican fare


"As long-time vegans, Davis and LaRussa took part in creating GuacStar because they believed a plant-based restaurant with a bar component was much needed in the Phoenix area." Illustration published on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

GuacStar is a new cost-conscious, plant-based restaurant set to open early 2020 at the Cornerstone in Tempe. 

Consultant James Carlin is a veteran of the restaurant business, and five years before the creation of GuacStar, Carlin had sold his last restaurant and planned to semi-retire. 

His plans changed when he began dating Suzanne Davis, a co-owner of GuacStar. He was inspired to create the restaurant after Davis introduced him to a plant-based diet and films like "What The Health." 

"She said to try to eat that way for a week, so I did," Carlin said. "It just kind of really blew me away so that week turned into two and a half years."

The other co-owners, Tom Cerino, Randy Feldman and Julie LaRussa, had different reasons to be a part of GuacStar's creation. 

Business partners Cerino and Feldman discussed the increasing desire for plant-based dining options and found that creating a diverse environment for food lovers of all backgrounds was the best option.

As long-time vegans, Davis and LaRussa joined in creating GuacStar because they believed a plant-based restaurant with a bar component was much needed in the Phoenix area. 

"My hope is that our restaurant will not only be a cool place to hang out and eat and drink but will also serve as a catalyst to motivate people to eat a plant-based diet more frequently," LaRussa said. 

Carlin said even though each co-founder was inspired to start the restaurant for different reasons, their beliefs about plant-based diets aligned. 

Vincent Contreras, the executive chef, had an extensive role in creating the menu and said creativity was heavily involved in the process. 

"You have to be really creative and patient because there's been a lot of times where I think I'm right there and then it just falls apart, but it's made me be a better chef," Contreras said. 

On a trip to Mexico, Contreras realized Mexican cuisine already has many plant-based dishes although he knows the restaurant will bring more variety to the cuisine. 

The co-owners hope GuacStar will dispel negative misconceptions around plant-based food to help normalize and encourage plant-based dining options and diets. 

Tammy Nguyen, an undergraduate student studying sustainability, said she is looking forward to GuacStar opening.

There was a Mexican restaurant near ASU, but it was closed which was sad to see, Nguyen said. She is happy to see a plant-based Mexican cuisine option being added to other vegan options like Loving Hut and Green.

"It creates an opportunity for the community to have a vegan food option that will add culture and diversity to vegan options," Nguyen said. 

She also hopes GuacStar will be successful in normalizing and encouraging plant-based dining options for both vegans and non-vegans to expand their cultural ventures around the food they already eat. 

"We want to create something that is so amazing that people go 'Man, one of the best restaurants in town,' not one of the best vegan restaurants, just the best restaurant," Carlin said. 

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the opening date due to the spread of COVID-19. This story has also been updated to provide a new title for Carlin. 

Reach the reporter at and follow @celzuniga on Twitter.

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