As a native Texan, my ears always perk up when I hear of a new Mexican restaurant in these parts. We Texans love our Tex-Mex the way New Yorkers love their pizza.
So when I heard that Carmelita's Mexican Restaurant had opened two months ago on Old County Road 54 in southwest Pasco, my ears began to tingle.
I had my first Carmelita's meal about 20 years ago in Clearwater, the second Carmelita's established by Vincent and Carmen Lopez (the first being in St. Petersburg in 1983).
As a relative newcomer to Florida, I found it different from my old Houston Ship Channel haunts where Mexican refinery workers and day laborers kept the cooks honest, but it did a good job of satisfying my craving for good, basic Tex-Mex.
The menu has almost all the things you could want: sopapillas, enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, burritos, chimichangas, flautas (corn, flour, soft and/or crisp), combo platters, specialties, cold beer, sangria and more.
In recent years, former longtime employees of Carmelita's have set up shop under that name — and with the founders' blessings — in Largo and Pinellas Park.
The local version is owned by Jose H. Salazar Jr., a 13-year veteran at Carmelita's and native of Mexico, who has license to use the restaurant's name, menu and recipes, including dishes not found in your run-of-the-mill eatery such as the gorgeous Mexican Pizza ($9.99) with beans, ground beef, chorizo, jack and cheddar cheeses, tomatoes, all topped with sour cream, guacamole and black olives.
Salazar and his wife, Karla, took over a down-at-heels restaurant spot, stripped it bare, scrubbed it until it sparkled, then redid it from the inside out with fresh paint, carpet, booths, tables, lights and colorful Mexican touches. The landlord added a rock face to the front to give a south-of-the-border feel. Salazar opened his doors on May 12, and his clientele continues to grow.
Over the last quarter century, Carmelita's has worked out the formula to please Florida palates and wisely stuck with it. The salsa, made fresh daily, is lively without being too spicy. The refried pinto beans don't have that distinctive lard flavor and crispy edges found in Houston taquerias, but are creamier and mild enough to please Florida natives as well as those from the Northeast and Midwest.
The sauce on the house special Del Ray wet burrito is as close to Italian as it is Mexican, which may explain Carmelita's success with the northern transplants who dominate this area.
Call it Tex-Mex with a Florida flavor.
The lunch and dinner menus are almost identical, except lunch portions are smaller and prices a tad less for several dishes. The hallmark is fresh, fresh, fresh. Salazar's crew comes in at 7 a.m. every day to start everything anew: the thin, crisp chips in the colors of the Mexican flag; the shredded beef, the poblano peppers for chiles rellenos, which you can order with or without fluffy egg batter.
Kids age 10 and younger get their choice of six different combinations (taco, enchilada, chicken and rice, burrito, chicken tenders or cheese quesadilla, most with one side of beans, corn, rice or fries) plus a fountain drink for $4.99.
Carmelita's has won a wall of awards over the years, including the St. Petersburg Times' Gold Award for Tex-Mex/Mexican Restaurants in Tampa Bay's Favorites contest for five years.
Its spotless interior, consistently fresh food, fast, knowledgeable servers and attentive owner will likely make it a favorite here, too.