When the economy tanked in late 2008, Cuban-born Michell Sanchez ended up like many others -- down on his luck. After his business buying and selling gold crumbled, he went from a life of luxury and globetrotting to nothing.
"I lost everything: my car, my condo," recalls Sanchez, who looks a little like a Latin Guy Fieri. "I moved into an efficiency apartment next door to my mom. It was a perfect storm. I knew I had to do something, but the last thing I wanted to do was cook. It was embarrassing. I didn't want to go from making a lot of money to flipping tacos."
Then he met his future wife, Bella, a Mexican beauty enthralled by the spices and cuisine of her homeland. Inspired by both Bella and his mother, Teresa, who had worked as a bakery manager at Miami's fabled Versailles Cuban Restaurant, Sanchez began sketching out a plan for a food truck.
In 2010, the trio bought a used truck from Orlando and rolled out Latin House Grill alongside just a handful of mobile kitchens. The truck was one of the first to hit the streets of South Florida. It set up shop at the corner of Bird Road and SW 83rd Street, selling burgers and tacos. Bella took orders at the window, while Teresa helped work the flat-top and fryer. Even his 84-year-old grandmother got involved, sitting outside the truck to pose as a hungry patron.
They made $27 on their first day of business.
But in just a few months, patrons were following the truck through traffic, begging for a taste. Sanchez referred to them as "stalkers" and created a special dish to satisfy all their cravings, a sampler platter of the truck's most popular menu items. "It helped us stick out from the crowd, and that was the turning point," said Sanchez. "In just six months, there were 60 food trucks, maybe more. Everywhere we went, we had 80-plus people waiting in line."
In 2012, Sanchez took the next step, selling two food trucks and opening a restaurant with the same name off Sunset Drive in Miami. The menu, an extension of the food truck's favorite items, became an instant hit.
Two months ago, Sanchez opened his second location -- the first of several additional restaurants he plans to open across Florida -- in Pembroke Pines. The location was a nod to his original stalkers, many of whom had come from Broward County for a taste of his Cuban-Mexican fusion.
The new restaurant, nestled into the back corner of a strip-mall at Pines Boulevard and SW 101st Avenue, is easy to spot thanks to a glowing red sign and a wall of windows painted to look like the flames that were once emblazoned on his food trucks. Walk inside and you'll see his signature catch phrase -- "Mad Love" -- spelled out in Edison bulbs, while a few dozen pendant bulbs hang from the ceiling, illuminating the main dining area.
The left wall is dedicated to an intricate, hand-painted mural, its sensual Day of the Dead beauties and whimsical creatures drawing your eye from a dining room that includes simple black banquettes and a dozen or so plain square tables.
Just steps from the main dining room, a spacious L-shaped bar awaits, empty. Maybe it's because of the unfinished cocktail menu (it's still in the works) or the lack of draft beer (taps have yet to be installed). Or maybe no one's sitting there because the restaurant is out of the locally made sangria, the signature drink. There's sometimes no hostess either. It's a seat-yourself type of place.
But the brick-and-mortar Latin House Grill isn't about ambiance. It's about Sanchez's Latin-based, street-food-style fare. Perhaps you'll order what Fieri did on a recent episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives: the giant chimi burritos, puffy flattons, and the Mad Love burgers that made Sanchez famous for his kitchen on wheels.
The menu offers a variety of familiar starters and entrées, and much of the fare is still prepped and made by family: Teresa continues to prepare sofrito from scratch, Bella whips up each of her dozen or so homemade sauces, and Sanchez's sister prepares and delivers hand-rolled brownies for the Balls to the Wall dessert.
Appetizers have cutesy names like Sneaky Nachos (fresh-fried tortilla chips drenched in a trio of homemade sauces), Sweet Petals (fried sweet potato chips with a house-roasted garlic aioli), calamari blossoms (flash-fried calamari rings served with cocktail sauce), and Tangled Love (French fries). If you're looking for something different, try the Pig Wings, a trio of plump, four-ounce pork ribs on long bones. When you pick them up, they feel like something out of The Flintstones, but the meat is juicy and succulent, its charred crisp edges coated in a tangy, sweet Asian barbecue sauce.
Timba -- egg-battered cubes of queso blanco -- are Sanchez's Latin-inspired mozzarella sticks. They're flash-fried and served alongside a plastic cup of gooey guava dipping sauce. The insides, though, are too firm; they have an off-putting texture -- like tofu.
For main plates, Sanchez offers several customizable dishes, from rice bowls and tacos to tortas and tostadas. They include a choice of cilantro and lime-marinated chicken, chorizo, BBQ pulled pork, or rib eye. There are also premium options like calamari, carne asada, and vaca frita for a few dollars more.
Tender, spicy carnitas are perfect in the jumbo-jet-sized chimi burritos. Stuffed with three cheeses, sweet plantains, and Teresa's famous sofrito-scented "chuchi" rice, they are wrapped tight and flash-fried. Although well-engineered, they ooze too much oil, coating your hands in a thick slick.
The puffy flatton, another food-truck favorite, is billed as flash-fried flatbread topped with meat, cheese, and butter-drenched onions and mushrooms. It arrives from the kitchen almost as an afterthought, however, with a sparse serving of ingredients. It's missing Bella's house-made avocado-lime and Mexican crema sauces. Cilantro lime-marinated chicken is tough and dry. And a few bites of diced tomato have an acidic tang -- as if they had come from a can.
Latin House's best dish, the burger, isn't Latin at all. A rich blend of brisket, chuck, and sirloin, it comes in a dozen specialty compilations. There's a variety of sizes, from a four-pack of mini-love sliders on sweet, doughy Hawaiian bread; quarter- and half-pound burgers; or meaty chorizo-stuffed patties. They come with colorful toppings like dulce de guayaba marmalade, peanut butter, candied jalapeño, and guava ketchup.
The Mad Love -- the truck's first burger -- is impeccable, a flavorful package of thick-cut maple-glazed bacon and butter-grilled onions and mushrooms smothered with a three-cheese blend. It's served with the restaurant's signature handcrafted fries -- long, thin wisps of julienned potatoes served in a tangled mass.
You can't leave Latin House Grill without trying the Balls to the Wall dessert -- dough-encased, deep-fried brownies rolled into munchkin-sized balls and smothered in condensed milk. Unfortunately, the ones we tried arrived dry and cake-like, sticking in doughy wads to the roof of our mouths while the gelatinous, condensed milk bath that pooled beneath them did nothing to make them go down easily.
With a few hit-and-miss dishes and service that can be spotty, Latin House is having a rocky start in Broward. But the place offers a lively menu that made the food trucks and Miami location successful. If Sanchez and company can find a way to serve the fun, flavorful, and full-of-love chow of their earlier days, they'll travel far on this road to success.
Latin House Grill is located at 9976 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines. Open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m. Call 954-399-9687, or visit latinhousegrill.com.
Pig Wings $13.99
Chimi burrito $12.99
Puffy flatton $11.99
Balls to the Wall $9.99
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.