Authentic Colombian fare this side of the Bay

Marlon Yepes, owner of Mi Carreta Restaurant and Bakery, immigrated to Florida from Medellin, Colombia, 10 years ago, and is dedicated to recreating the traditional dishes of his roots.

BY C. PINEDA, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Just off the 54th Avenue North exit on I-275 is the Mi Carreta Restaurant and Bakery, 2705 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg, which is fast becoming a gathering point for the Latinx/Hispanic community and fans of Colombian cuisine in the Tampa Bay area.

Owner Marlon Yepes, who immigrated to Florida from Medellin, Colombia, 10 years ago, is dedicated to recreating the traditional dishes of his roots. Colombia boasts a variety of dishes that reflect its vast regions and diverse population.

Influences include African, indigenous and Spanish flavors. Mi Carreta caters to these regional tastes with inclusions from the best of all these influences.

Yepes shared, “I was 18 when I came here 10 years ago. I came with my mom, dad and brother and sister.”

Shortly after that, Yepes found a job working for a cleaning company. It was there that he heard his coworkers talk about the lack of authentic Latinx restaurants in Pinellas County.

“They complained about having to go to Tampa to purchase bread and Hispanic food,” said Yepes.

His coworkers’ yearning for a taste of home sparked what was later to become the Mi Carreta restaurant and bakery. With the help of his wife, Yepes embarked on the American dream of entrepreneurship.

“It was just me and my wife, starting from scratch,” he shared.

Mi Carreta is very much a family affair. “My mom works here with me; she’s in the kitchen making the empanadas. We sell about 7,000 a week. That’s how good they are.”

Yepes recruited his cooks via social media. The baker and cooks are all originally from Colombia. “This is a way to keep the food authentic,” he shared.

Yepes is focused on offering a welcoming experience for all visitors, especially those trying out Colombian dishes for the first time.

His advice to anyone new to Colombian dishes, “Unlike Mexican food, Colombian food is not spicy.”

Popular items include the empanadas and cheese bread from the bakery and the bandeja paisa from the dinner menu.

“I love it here; the food is so good. Bandeja paisa is what I order. I absolutely love the food; it tastes like homemade,” expressed regular diner Gloria Karasick.

Yelp, Google, and Facebook reviews speak to Yepes’s high standards in the dining world.

Along with typical Colombian dishes, Yepes has added familiar items to the menu to reach all his customers, such as hamburgers and hot dogs.

The music and walls of Mi Carreta reflect the owner’s deep connection with his culture and his Afro-Colombian heritage.  Showcased on the walls are portraits of Colombian gold-medalist triple jumper Caterine Ibargüen and writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

An acoustic guitarist entertains on Saturday and Sunday evenings. “People use this place to come together. Mi Carreta is a place to relax and connect,” Yepes added.

There is typically a soccer match on one of the many television screens on the wall dedicated to sports.

“Whenever there is a Colombian soccer team playing, we advertise the event, and we watch the game with passion; it’s fun,” he shared.

Yepes has dreams of expanding. He hopes to get a permit to build a billiards room to offer another place to connect. “There are few places for the community to come together and hang out.”

A fixture now in the area for six years, Yepes stated that his sales increased during the pandemic as other restaurants closed. “We stayed open doing delivery and curbside pickup.”

The restaurant took on five new employees during the pandemic to meet the demand. “All employees speak English and Spanish,” stated Yepes.

All employees wear masks and follow all protocols.

Yepes is happy to become a destination restaurant for the Tampa Bay area.  “We are happy to welcome everyone interested in what our menu has to offer.”

Longtime Lealman resident Carrick Bradley agrees: “This place hits all the right notes. It will be the best meal of your day.”

To reach C. Pineda, email cpineda@theweeklychallenger.com

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