Carmelina’s: Cooking for the UCSF Community

Published on February 09, 2017


The Doc’s Taco at Carmelina’s Taqueria is made with beans, shrimp, lettuce and fresh salsa. But there’s more to their tacos than meets the eye.

“This means so much to us,” said Carmelina Narciso (photographed right), owner of the popular taqueria located in the Panassus Millberry Union food court. “It’s a simple menu item but it tells our story.”

Narciso left her home in Peru in 1978 with her son, Marco, daughter, Karim (photographed left), several suitcases and $260 in her pocket. “Peru was not a safe place to live in the mid-1970s,” she said.

Because she worked for an American company, Narciso was able to obtain a US visa. She booked a flight to Miami with a connecting flight to New York, where she hoped to build a new life with her children. Two days before she left Lima, a friend called and talked to her about San Francisco. Instead of flying to New York, Narciso made a snap decision to make her final destination San Francisco.

Welcome to San Francisco: Fifth and Mission is No Place for Kids

When the plane landed at SFO, nobody was waiting for them. “It was just me and my kids,” said Narciso. “I hailed a cab and told the driver I needed a hotel. He took us to Fifth and Mission.”

She immediately realized that a hotel on Fifth and Mission in 1978 was not a safe place for a three-year-old and a nine-year-old. So they packed up their meager belongings and stayed with an “acquaintance of an acquaintance” on 27th and San Jose. “She didn’t know who we were until we showed up on her doorstep. She only had one bed so we separated the box spring and the mattress. I slept on the box spring and the kids slept on the mattress.”

To earn money, Narciso began cleaning houses. Soon, she was cleaning for some of the most powerful families in San Francisco. “As a kid, I remember playing outside these beautiful mansions,” said Karim Salgado. “It was a big part of my childhood.”

One day, Narciso met a friend at San Francisco State University and as they were walking the campus she spotted a small restaurant space for rent. “Most of my family in Peru owned small businesses,” she said. “I understood the kind of hard work needed to make a business successful.”

She grabbed a proposal packet and worked with Marco and Karim to fill out the proposal on an old typewriter. Approximately 10 years after arriving from Peru with virtually nothing, she submitted the proposal to open a small restaurant at SFSU selling whole fruits, vegetables and sandwiches. “I wanted to focus on healthy food,” she said.

Starting a Small Business Takes More Than Hardwork - It Takes Money

The university accepted the proposal but there was one catch – they required a $1,200 deposit. “I didn’t have any money,” she said, “so I pawned my personal jewelry that I brought with me from Peru.”

But there was one more financial obstacle to overcome. The restaurant needed equipment and that would cost another $10,000. “I went to the bank to open a small business line of credit but they wouldn’t loan me the money because I didn’t make enough cleaning houses.”

She went back to cleaning houses and told one of her clients, Dr. George Lindsay, Director Emeritus of the California Academy of Sciences, that she had submitted a proposal to open a small restaurant at SFSU. “I told him that the restaurant needed equipment and he said, ‘you don’t have the money to buy equipment, do you?’ I told him no and he said no problem and he wrote me a check for $10,000. I broke down and cried.”

Joining the UCSF Community

Narciso repaid Dr. Lindsay monthly and the restaurant was a success. Soon, she set her eyes on opening a second restaurant, this time at UC San Francisco. “I always wanted to be part of the university on the hill,” she said.

Narciso was making sandwiches to sell out of another vendor’s cart at Parnassus in the late 1980s before she signed a contract with the university to have her own coffee cart at the Mission Center Building in 2001. A year later, she opened Carmelina’s Taqueria at Parnassus and in 2003 she opened Carmelina’s Café at MCB.

“When we opened the taqueria we knew our menu had to reflect our personal journey,” Salgado said. “Doc’s Taco was one of our first menu items. Because Dr. Lindsay was a famous botanist who did much of his research in Baja, many of our menu items have a Baja theme.”

Today, the menus at the two UCSF restaurants and the taqueria at SFSU reflect the community they serve. “We want people to feel like they’re coming over to our home for a meal,” Salgado said. “Many of our customers are regulars.”

Both UCSF restaurants have also expanded their catering through America to Go available on BearBuy, where campus users can order breakfast, lunch, dinner, light refreshments or custom orders for their meetings. Narciso said UCSF customers can custom order their menus to fit the needs of their event, and if they don’t see something on the menu that they like, they can customize their order until they are satisfied.

“It’s another way we can serve the community that’s given so much to our family,” she said.