Locally Richmond is an occasional series of profiles that highlights the small businesses that contribute to making Richmond a unique community.
It’s all about family at Taqueria La Estrella.
Family members work together behind and in front of the counter. They roam the streets together in the restaurant’s new food truck. When the work is done, they go home together.
Karina Carmona, one of five siblings, had just graduated from high school when the restaurant opened. She has known no other job.
“Learning how to do something new—anything—was always exciting,” she said in Spanish. “When I first started working here, I would be the first one to arrive in the morning.”
Taqueria la Estrella, which specializes in authentic Mexican food, opened in May 2005 on 23rd Street near MacDonald Avenue, only half the size it is now. Customers would walk into a thin aisle between tables lining both walls. At one point, having too many customers became a problem.
Streamers of papel picado line the ceiling, reaching down to touch walls painted in coral, mustard and mint. Mariachi musician artwork keeps diners entertained.
In September, the restaurant incorporated a lonchera food truck in El Cerrito. The food truck, the first to be approved there, had been parked outside the restaurant in an empty lot next door until a developer purchased the space for a commercial project.
Karina Carmona’s brother Armando is the one whose name is on the lease, but the business is not his alone. The father of the family, Jose Carmona, always wanted to own a business so his children would be financially secure.
“I am awake early and I sleep late,” Jose said. “It’s the small price we pay to have this. It is a source of work so that the family will not have to find jobs. We have jobs here.”
A year ago, the family, which has lived in Richmond 12 years, rented a trash-strewn empty lot next door to add outdoor seating.
“What one seeks is to make it better,” Karina Carmona said, adding that the temporary expansion had received a positive response from customers. “We’re always looking for ways to make it better.”
That includes the food.
“We make everything as we would eat it,” she said. When her brother suggested buying a machine to cut meat, she was against it. “No, no, no,” she had told him. “It’s necessary to update the style, but not dramatically.”
The Carmonas take pride in serving authentic Mexican meals. That makes the business feel like an extension of their home.
“One does not see it as a business,” Karina Carmona said. “It’s just a way to work.”
City leaders see it as an economic contribution to the city.
Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, a regular customer at the restaurant who can’t decide on a favorite dish, said small businesses like Taqueria la Estrella are the backbone of the city’s local economy.
“They hire local residents, add to the tax base of the city, and provide wonderful services for our community as a whole,” she said.
Small businesses have helped improve 23rd Street, which has over the years become flooded with Latino restaurants, stores, salons and automobile repair shops.
“The street got better, it used to be very abandoned,” Carmona said. “It felt more dangerous.”
Despite the dicey location, her family had high hopes for the business—which seem to have paid off.
“Our Latino community in Richmond has shown itself to be very entrepreneurial,” McLaughlin said. “23rd Street is a great example of many wonderful small Latino-owned businesses.”
Carmona remembered how a longtime customer said farewell to the family before moving to Sacramento.
“She told us she would miss us,” Carmona said, placing her hand over her chest. “Customers usually come for years. It becomes a daily routine and when you take some time to think about it, it’s exciting. It fills you with tenderness.”
She recalled seeing customers’ children grow up through the years and even Univision San Francisco visited the locale to interview family members.
“Es bien bonito,” she said repeatedly throughout a one-hour interview, “it’s really nice.”
When the national economy crashed in 2008, Carmona said the family witnessed many local restaurants close. Yet it was when Taqueria la Estrella saw one of its best years.
She said credit for that goes beyond even the seven family members: “Like my dad says, ‘Thank God.’”