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Tarek’s Cafe feeds USF’s eclectic tastes

Tarek Elsayed of Tarek’s Cafe. ORACLE PHOTO/RUSSELL NAY

Most USF students know where they can get a sub next to Cooper Hall or Chinese food in the Marshall Student Center. However, many students are likely unaware of one on-campus cafe where they can satisfy their taste for something more exotic — like a traditional Greek-style gyro or a falafel sandwich.

At the edge of the USF Health side of campus, tucked away behind the College of Public Health and within one of the courtyards at the Continuing Education building lies Tarek’s Cafe. The cafe is an independently owned restaurant that serves a number of breakfast and lunch dishes, desserts and daily specials to students, faculty and the general public.

The cafe consists of a small dining area, a front counter and a kitchen in the back, run by a cooking staff of three chefs led by Tarek Elsayed. Elsayed, both the owner and head chef of Tarek’s, said his restaurant first came to campus at the bequest of his customers in 1993.

“I had a restaurant across the street, and staff from USF used to come to that restaurant all the time,” Elsayed said. “They wanted me to come here for months and months, and finally I made the decision to come in. I’ve remained ever since.”

While Elsayed was born in Cairo, Egypt, he got his start in the restaurant business in 1976 while working in restaurants in London and Holland while in high school. 

In 1980 he moved to New York City, where he began working in French restaurants and later managing Italian restaurants before wanting to open his place.

While Elsayed has been in the restaurant business for more than 37 years, he said becoming a chef and owning his own restaurant was not his first dream. Originally, he wanted to become a marine biologist due to a passion for the ocean, fishing and biology. However, he said he soon fell in love with being a chef and would not have wanted it to turn out any other way.

“When I was younger, all I was thinking about was the sea and biology, but the journey of life changes your headings,” he said. “It’s just love for … quality food, and that’s all I’ve done all my life. It just grew on me, and I want to do nothing else but cooking and staying in the restaurant business … It was far away from my dreams, but I’m glad it did happen, and I would do it all over again.”

While the number of customers visiting his cafe fluctuates throughout the years, Elsayed has noticed a definite change in the appetites of his customers since his restaurant opened at USF — specifically, a recently growing taste for exotic foods.

“With the advertisements and TV and Food Network, things definitely changed, and everybody wants to try different kinds of cuisines,” Elsayed said. “I think the restaurant business now has become an experience and not a necessity. The entertainment aspect of going out to eat probably plays 90 percent of the role.”

This newfound desire for something different is reflected in the menu at Tarek’s Cafe, which contains American lunch staples such as burgers and chicken tenders alongside lesser-featured dishes like a blackened tilapia sandwich and a couscous and quinoa salad served with tomato, fresh mozzarella and pita wedges. 

“I try to cover all the avenues,” he said. “I carry different specials sometimes like … salmon, shrimp, pastas (and) a lot of different specials. My menu actually covers everything — sandwiches, vegetarian salads, burgers, Philly steaks, French fries — you name it, I have it.”

Lani Boothman-Carpenter, a USF alumna and the resource manager for the digital innovations group at USF Health’s Information Systems, said she has been eating breakfast at Tarek’s since Elsayed introduced breakfast to the cafe’s menu about four years ago. 

Her favorite dishes include pancakes and turkey bacon, Cuban toast with cheese and bacon, gyro wraps and the sizeable Tony’s Breakfast Sandwich — two eggs with cheese on toasted Cuban bread, with a choice of ham, sausage or bacon.

She said she was first introduced to Tarek’s through a classmate while she was still a student at USF and was surprised to learn there was a cafe behind the College of Public Health.

“All I knew were the regular student dining (spots),” she said. “When I went there, I saw some other friends … and I was like, ‘Why didn’t you share this with me before? I’ve been eating campus food the entire time.’”

Now, Boothman-Carpenter said she keeps coming back to the restaurant because of the quality of the food and the care Elsayed places into his cooking.

“I’m kind of tired of the fast food, quickly processed, everything-tastes-the-same type of food,” she said. “You can tell when food is cooked with love, and Tarek’s food is cooked with love. 

“You can see that he loves what he does (and) loves feeding people … You can see … this isn’t just another job for him to get by or get funds for food; this is what he’s passionate about.”

While Elsayed said he has no major plans for his cafe in the near future, he will continue to cook at his restaurant as he always has, and there is always something new on the menu.

“Lots of different people have pushed me to open a different business somewhere else … (but) I love my schedule at USF,” he said. “You’ll see in the fall … lots of vegetarian (dishes), a lot of Mediterranean dishes (and) maybe some extra seafood.”

For the summer, Tarek’s Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday – Thursday and 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Friday.