CJ’s Tacos Opens at 507 South Gay Street

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

CJ’s Tacos, who many of you know from his taco tent or from Chris Jones’ food truck, has opened his first brick and mortar location inside Embassy Suites. A soft opening last weekend attracted lines as the word spread. He’s humbled and grateful for the journey he’s taken to get to this point.

Born in Indianapolis, Chris considers Saginaw, Michigan, where his family moved when he was eight, to be his hometown. He describes a family that didn’t have much, but his father loved to cook and “understood the balance of flavors.” Of the six children, it was Chris who learned culinary arts from his father.

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

Chris also spent a lot of time at his best friend’s house, ate supper there several days a week, and learned from his friend’s mom how to fry tortillas for the tacos they had once a week. In the lower income parts of the city, it was understood that tortillas would be fried.

After high school, where he starred in basketball, he attended Kirtland Community College and then Glen Oaks Community College where he played basketball on a scholarship. It was during his second year of college that his son was born, and Chris reached a turning point. A former high school coach asked him if he planned to play professional basketball. It was the first time he’d considered that, but being too short for the NBA, he would need to consider life after basketball.

Owner Chris Jones, C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

When the mother of his child moved to Knoxville to be near her family, Chris made the decision to do the same so that he might better be a part of his son’s life. Arriving in Knoxville in 2015, he worked at food industry jobs, serving tables and managing restaurants. After a bit less than three years, he’d had it. He hated his job, had grown depressed, and he wanted more.

One night he knew he had to figure it out. He took out his laptop and started looking for ideas. He’d eaten tacos at a number of places around town but hadn’t seen a single fried tortilla. Having no money, he started thinking about the Tennessee Valley Fair and the food tents there. How do you get a tent and get set up? What are the regulations? He called Patricia Robledo with the City of Knoxville and Kevin Clark with the Knox County Health Department and asked them tons of questions.

Food Tent (Photo Courtesy CJ’s)

Food Truck (Photo Courtesy CJ’s)

He learned that a one-day tent at an event is not regulated. Two days or more requires a temporary Health Department permit. He bought a tent for $100 and a portable flat-top grill for $200. He bought a table and an Igloo. He borrowed about $5,000 to buy everything he needed, pay his fees, and set up at the Fair. He worked nearly twenty-four-hour days, stopping to rest his legs and close his eyes for an hour at a time. He recalls prepping all night with a dull chef’s knife.

Chris worked the full ten days of the Fair and earned back the $5,000. He’d brought 500 business cards and given them all out. Bookings had already come in for events. His tacos were loved and he was ready to rock. One of the people taking a card would become very important to his future. Alpesh Patel, current owner of Embassy Suites, had him provide sample tacos to Alpesh’s wife, who then hired him to cater their daughter’s birthday party.

Not long after, Alpesh asked what Chris’ goals were for his business and his future. They set a meeting for a week later to discuss the possibilities. The meeting resulted in Alpesh investing money and his organization (accounting, management) into CJ’s Tacos in exchange for a part ownership. The result was a truck and a trailer and everything needed for a first-rate food truck operation. By February 2018, it was in business.

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

The two set projections for the year and shattered them. They saw an additional 40% increase in profits in 2019. As they sat down at the end of the year to discuss the financials for the year and to make plans for 2020, Alpesh suggested the possibility of building a small take-out spot on the Gay Street side of Embassy Suites. When that proved problematic, the two turned to the large space on the mezzanine at the back of the lobby and everything clicked for the full restaurant you will see today.

You can still find the food truck out-and-about and Chris is very proud they won the Taco Showdown at Central Filling Station at 900 N. Central St. where you’ll find the truck each week. He says he will continue to work at the Fair because they love his tacos and helped launch him. “I’ll go back every year. They’ve been good to us and I love to do it. We do great and people look for CJ’s.”

Urban Girl, C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

In an unusual statement for a chef, he says his tacos are “not authentic.” By that he means, he isn’t trying to make traditional tacos of any culture, though people from California have told him they are reminded of California tacos. He says while they may not be authentic, “they are unique. It’s my version of what I think is good food. This is what I think a taco should taste like.”

To that end, I can give a bit of a testimonial. Urban Girl and I did some research for this article. She got two build-your-own tacos, and I got the pick three for $11.90. I chose the Asian Fusion, Buffalo Chicken, and CJ’s Original. Urban Girl said I could give her endorsement, and mine were some of the best tacos I’ve ever had. The winner, for me, was the CJ’s Original. We also loved the chips and guacamole.

C.J.’s Tacos, 507 South Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2020

Chris says he developed the menu sitting on his bed nearly two years ago and didn’t taste them until he opened. He makes the ingredients from scratch and makes his own seasoning and sauces. He wanted ingredients that make them different and feels he’s found that spot. He keeps it simple – six good tacos and nothing more.

In addition to the food truck and tent, Chris caters events. You can follow CJs on Facebook, their webpage, Twitter and Instagram. The hours for the downtown location may shift a bit, but initially, they are 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday, 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturday and 12:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.. A grand opening event is planned for the near future. In the meantime, check them out for lunch, dinner or after that fun night on the rooftop.


  1. John Thayer says

    Some of the best tacos I’ve ever had, and Chris seems to be a genuine guy. It’s always nice to see good people have success.

  2. Congrats to Chris and his team! I can’t wait to get down there with my husband and take friends from out of town.

    Why? We’re on a very limited ingredient diet, and the CJ’s staff has been SUPER accommodating and gracious in feeding us @ the food truck park. Believe it or not, it’s difficult to eat even tacos that are safe for us. CJ’s menu selections are high quality, DELICIOUS and healthy for us. I’m so happy and excited they’ll have a presence downtown, and I wish them the best!

    • Is it gluten that you need to stay away from, or something else? My wife has celiac disease and we’re always looking for good restaurants that can accommodate gluten-free. If we can get good tacos made GF right here in town, and not have to worry about cross-contamination, that would be excellent.

      • Kevin, we’re both Type 2 diabetics. We follow a way of eating for the 1%, avoiding every carb possible. We consume about 30 a day max, which makes it challenging to eat out and to have many safe choices.

        Maybe ask CJ if GF is an option. Best of luck!

  3. Nolan Wells says

    Urban Guy, I recently noticed that the Knox MPC Groundbreakers application recently updated to indicate that there is a new apartment complex planned adjacent to Suttree Landing Park called “South Banks at Suttree Landing”. Do you know of any additional information about this project?

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Not much at this point. It has generated some controversy.

      • Joe Hultquist says

        The “South Banks” development is a fairly massive apartment complex between Langford Ave. and Waterfront Drive, which fronts Sutree Landing Park.It’s three blocks long, with buildings broken only by the cross streets. The Developer is Dominion Development of Knoxville. There is an appeal of a series of variances that were granted by the BZA last year. The variances pertain mostly to a reduction of minimum building frontages on the side streets, and have no substantial bearing on the bigger issue of the loss of sight lines created by these full-block buildings.

        The appeal was postponed for two weeks, to next Tuesday’s City Council meeting, mainly so brand new First District City Councilman Tommy Smith can try to get his arms around the issue. Complicating everything is a TN AG opinion that, in their quasi-judicial role, Council members can’t talk to anyone about any of it prior to a decision. It makes no sense, and I’m thankful that that straght jacket wasn’t in place when I served on Council.

        The underlying reality is that the South Waterfront Regulating Plan (including special form based zoning code) was supposed to have been revisited a year or so after it was adopted in 2007. Here we are thirteen years later, and other than some administrative tweaks, that hasn’t happened. It’s past time for a thorough public process to address the gaps and shortcomings that are now becoming glaringly evident. I am hopeful that Councilman Smith and the Kincannon administration will make that a priority.

        • So the objection to building the apartments is “loss of sight lines”?

          • Joe Hultquist says

            I didn’t mean to imply that the loss of sight lines (view corridors might be a better description) is the only objection or concern. Rooftop AC units and parking are other issues I’ve heard mentioned.

  4. Inspiring story! Good for Chris, and good for Alpesh for recognizing the grind and investing in local talent. Looking forward to trying CJ’s tacos.

  5. I don’t know about you all, but those taco prices are very steep. The 3 taco deal doesn’t even come with sides. I’ll be sticking to SoKno tacos for better pricing/options

    • There’s a 2 taco and choice of side for around $10.51 (about a $1.50 more than a similar deal at SoKno–not exactly the biggest of differences). Location is a bit more expensive than at SoKno as well (which has its own issues, as it is a bit of schlep). I haven’t tried CJ’s yet, but I will. I’m sure there’s a lot to enjoy about both businesses.

    • They’re quality tacos though. You can get chips and salsa with them for free. Three tacos is pretty filling. In a traditional sense, typically you don’t do sides with tacos.

  6. On a different subject, the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, is putting on a musical called “Knoxville” in April. Based on a James Agee book.

  7. Love it.

  8. John Jackson says

    cj’s tacos I believe that people who don’t eat meat should be able to dine in mixed company without feeling that they were second-class citizens, or that their meal consisted of a series of side dishes, as they so often do at restaurants.

  9. If you want some good tacos you must visit this place, I totally recovered it. They are step ahead from competition!

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