By Carla M. Dubis Tedeschi

Being grateful at all times doesn’t always feel logical. Sometimes, it goes against all the emotions of frustration, anger, and hopelessness running through our minds, especially during these unprecedented times. 

Surprisingly, Carmelita’s owner Jose Salazar Jr. feels nothing but blessed these days, despite everything happening with the current pandemic. His positive mindset is contagious, and his humility is truly admirable.

“I am very grateful for my hard-working staff, and for all the incredible community support we’ve received,” says Jose.  “We’re getting through these days. It’s not been easy, but my employees and clients have been amazing at keeping us afloat. Working with masks, especially for our kitchen staff, hasn’t been easy. But everyone has been cooperating and staying positive despite the hard times. They are real troopers, and I am very thankful to have such an amazing team working for the common good.” Jose would also like to express his gratitude to the Lopez Zamora family. “Everyone at Carmelita’s welcomes you to enjoy fresh, authentic Mexican food at affordable prices, in a clean and safe environment for you and your loved ones.”

Carmelita’s is currently operating at 50% capacity despite Gov. DeSantis’ newest restaurant & bar regulations passed late September 2020. “We care about our employees and customer’s safety above all, and we will continue operating at our current capacity, social distancing the tables, and wearing our masks until the virus is eradicated or under control,” says Jose. “We also switched to online menus through QR codes for sanitary reasons, and we have two hand sanitizing stations, one outside and one inside, to make sure everyone sanitizes before and after visiting Carmelita’s.”

After my first visit, I became a regular, and you will too! My best friend Briana and I spent her 30th birthday at Carmelita’s a couple of weeks ago. We enjoyed some delicious house Margaritas during happy hour, traditional tacos, and the most amazing loaded nachos with huge chunks of steak, yum!

From the moment you walk in, Carmelita’s exudes Mexican vibes, with it’s a bright and colorful decor and family-friendly atmosphere. You’ll feel transported to Mexico as you enjoy the lively Latin music while the staff, greet you and serve you with a smile you can sense even through their masks. Framed photographs of Mexican war battles, black and white portraits of famous Mexican celebrities, and old school memorabilia, adorn the walls giving Carmelita’s a sense of tradition and nostalgia. 

Carmelita’s has established the standard in quality Mexican food that’s been hard to beat for over three decades. The taste of Carmelita’s homemade food is authentically indigenous to Mexico. The portions are large, and the prices are affordable. 

All dinners are promptly served complimentary chips and salsa, which are freshly made daily. The salsa is top-notch, and the chips are always crunchy and warm. 

Entrees include a large selection of Mexican favorites like tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, chimichangas, burritos, and fajitas. All entrees are served with two sides; rice, refried beans, black beans, pinto beans, charro beans, corn, or a side salad.  

House Specialties include; chile rellenos, flautas, tamales, and the famous Mexican Pizza made with a crisp flour tortilla covered with frijoles, ground beef, chorizo, jack and cheddar cheeses, tomatoes and topped with sour cream, guacamole, black olives, and green onions. A vegetarian pizza option is available if you prefer your pizza meatless.

The first Carmelita’s opened in St. Petersburg over 30 years ago, and over time, additional locations opened in Largo, Pinellas Park, and Clearwater. 

Jose and his wife Karla Salazar are the proud owners of the New Port Richey Location, and their story is not only humble and heartwarming but the epitome of the American dream. 

Born and raised in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Jose H. Salazar Jr. started working at the original Carmelita’s as a busboy when he was only 19 years old. During the time he was employed, Jose showed commitment, dedication, and incredible work ethics, which the owners never took for granted. The fact he was bilingual and able to communicate with clients and staff in English and Spanish, also helped his career tremendously. 

Jose managed to work his way up from busser to manager; for approximately thirteen years, Jose successfully managed the popular Carmelita’s location on East Bay Dr. in Clearwater, Largo.

Jose and Karla’s dream was to own their own business, and in 2008, during the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression of 1929, and with many businesses closing their doors, Jose and Karla took a leap of faith. They risked it all and put their entire life savings into opening up the New Port Richey location. 

“My wife Karla, who is my right hand and current account manager, was and still is my biggest supporter. It was her encouragement and motivation that got us to where we are today,” says Jose. “Karla reminded me that we came to this country with nothing, so why not take a chance for the possibility of a better future for us and our children, Sebastian and Sofia. And the rest is history.” 

The Salazar’s positivity and continuous hard work are remarkable. Today, even in the face of adversity with COVID, Jose and Karla continue to provide their regulars and new visitors with fresh, homemade Mexican food, and impeccable customer service that has made Carmelita’s a Bay area staple.

“There are a lot of Mexican restaurants around, but none better than your local Carmelita’s,” says frequent visitor Daryll K. “Over the years, my family and I have visited the many locations, and we’ve never been disappointed in the quality of the food or the friendly service. They are, without a doubt, a five-star Mexican restaurant.”

Owning and operating a restaurant requires a lot of demanding work, but Jose and his staff do it all with a smile on their face and gratitude in their hearts. “Owning a restaurant is not easy. It’s extremely challenging. It’s time-consuming. Karla and I work hard for our family. This way, our children can follow their dreams, just like I followed mine,” says Jose. His son Sebastian is a Biomedical Engineering student at John Hopkins, and his younger daughter Sofia recently graduated high-school and is exploring her college options.

If you haven’t had the chance already, check out the documentary “Un Sueno Mexicano / A Mexican Dream,” filmed and documented by Jose’s brother, Yair A. Ponce, which depicts Jose’s path from a “Mexican “dreamer” to becoming a successful business owner. The short film demystifies the lives of immigrants who take a journey, not only geographical and physical but also existential, searching for a better life in the United States of America. The short film earned Antonio several film awards and international fame. To watch, please go online, open Youtube, and paste the following link:  HYPERLINK “https://youtu.be/aW7rwXiWmbY” \t “_blank” https://youtu.be/aW7rwXiWmbY. 

Make it a COMBO!

You can mix and match some of your favorites with the “Combo” options. Choose a Mexican Combo, and you’ll get a taco, a bean tostada, and a cheese enchilada. Big appetite? Try the “Del Rey Combo,” with a taco, a mini Del Rey burrito, and a shredded beef enchilada. 

Drink selections include your traditional margarita, which is the perfect pairing to any Mexican food. Served by the glass or split a pitcher with your group. They also offer homemade sangria, a nice selection of domestic and imported beers, wines by the glass, and sodas. 

Daily Specials & Taco Tuesdays!

Nobody does Taco Tuesdays like Carmelitas! Stop by next Tuesday to enjoy ALL YOU CAN EAT tacos for only $11.99 served with two sides! 

Local food guide Carl. L. says, “Unlimited Tacos on Taco Tuesday? Yes, yes, yes! We love this place!. This is another great Florida find. Great food, great service, comfortable booths, strong drinks, delicious Margaritas. I look forward to visiting again.”

Daily specials are listed on a whiteboard by the entrance, so make sure to check them out if you’re in the mood for something different, not on the menu. 

Leave Room for Dessert!

Satisfy your sugar cravings with deep-fried ice cream; vanilla ice cream rolled in granola and perfectly fried to a delicious crisp, topped with whipped cream, caramel, and sprinkles and served in an edible flour shell, or try an exotic or Apple Chimichanga; a crispy flour tortilla filled with sweet caramelized apples, topped with caramel syrup and sprinkles, dusted with powdered sugar. Great for sharing with your amigos! They also have other delectable options like a traditional caramel flan, sopapillas, or a cheesecake burrito. Yes, you read that right. The cheesecake burrito is a favorite! Rich, smooth cheesecake with a slightly tangy finish, rolled in a melt-in-your-mouth, flaky pastry tortilla. Yum! 

Carmelita’s Mexican Restaurant – New Port Richey is conveniently located at 8526 Old County Rd 54, New Port Richey, FL 34655. Open Monday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 9:30 pm. Questions? Email  info@carmelitas.net or call them directly at 727-376-4800.