By Carla Dubis

As a proud Latina, I enjoy my food flavorful and a little spicy, so I was excited to try the food at this little Mexican gem and learn more about its history. 

The restaurant is bright, colorful and immaculately clean. I immediately felt transported to Mexico as I listened to the pleasant and lively music while the hostess and servers, all dressed in authentic Mexican attire, greeted and sat customers in comfortable tables and cozy booths. Framed photographs of Mexican war battles, black and white portraits of Mexican celebrities, and old school Mexican memorabilia, adorn the walls giving Carmelita’s a sense of tradition and nostalgia. 

It was my very first time dining here and what a great experience it was, but many locals are familiarized with the popular Carmelita’s Mexican Restaurants located around the Pinellas County area. 

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 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 both 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 my biggest supporter in deciding to open this restaurant,” says Jose. “She reminded me that we came to this country with nothing, so why not take a chance and start over for the possibility of a better future for us and our children, Sebastian and Sofia.”

That risk paid off. Today, Jose and Karla continue to provide their customers with the fresh, homemade Mexican food, and great 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 a restaurant is hard work, but Jose does it all with a smile on his face. “Owning a restaurant is not easy. It’s challenging. It’s time-consuming. I work hard for my family. This way my 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 is about to graduate high school, but she’s already managed to become the FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) President of the Pasco County Chapter, and her goal is to attend business school at Berkley, 

For Jose is all about family, and from what I learned, his family is all about supporting him. Jose’s brother, Yair A. Ponce, filmed and documented all stages of Carmelita’s New Port Richey beginning, and combined it with some of their family history and Jose’s path from a Mexican “dreamer” to a successful business owner. The documentary, rightfully named “Un Sueno Mexicano / A Mexican Dream,” demystifies the life of people who undertake a journey, which is not only geographical or physical but also existential, in search of a better life in the United States of America. The short film earned Antonio several film awards and international fame. If you want to watch the documentary and learn more about Jose’s life and how Carmelita’s New Port Richey came to be, please visit this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW7rwXiWnbY

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 huge and tummy filling. Like the restaurant itself, Carmelita’s menu is well-organized, easy to understand and nicely presented. 

All dinners are promptly served complimentary chips and salsa, which are freshly made daily. The salsa was top notch and the chips were crunchy and warm. Delicious!

Appetizers include; Nachos con Carne, chili bean dip, tostada nachos, botanas, quesadillas, chicken taquitos and jalapeño poppers amongst many others. Many of these appetizing options are listed for less than $8.

All entrees are served with two sides; rice, refried beans, black beans, pinto beans, charro beans, corn or a side salad. 

Entrees include a large selection of Mexican favorites like tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, chimichangas, burritos, and fajitas. 

If you enjoy pork as much as I do, I suggest you try the “Tacos al Pastor” or the “Carnitas” tacos. Both incredibly flavorful and jammed packed with so much pork that overflows, falling on your perfectly seasoned rice and beans (if you chose those as your sides), making it another meal on its own. 

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.

Make it a COMBO! Why choose one option when you can try a few?

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!

Craving tacos? A LOT of them? Stop by Carmelitas on a Tuesday to enjoy ALL YOU CAN EAT tacos for only $10.99 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 in the menu. 

Leave Room for Dessert!

Satisfy your sugar cravings with a 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 or if you’re anything like me, devouring it all by yourself. 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! 

Jose and Karla would like to thank everyone for their support and patronage over the years. Jose wanted to give a special “Gracias,” to patrons Ron, Debbie, Sherrie, Don, Dave, Kathy, The Lopez family and all of the great customers who have been coming weekly since the place first opened its doors. 

“The community support has been overwhelming,” says Jose.  “I just want to say muchas gracias to everyone for letting us serve you and your family. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. So thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for choosing Carmelita’s.”

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 11:00am to 9:30pm. Questions? Email info@carmelitas.net or call them directly at 727-376-4800.