“Hey Sweetie, how’ya doin’? Café con leche?”
This is, undoubtedly, the first thing you’ll hear when you sidle up to the perennially packed bar at 925 Nuevo's Cubano's in Fort Lauderdale. And, undoubtedly, you’ll reply, “Si!” Even if you really didn’t want a café con leche. Maybe you wanted a Cuban sandwich or a fresh fruit batido, or shake — it doesn’t matter. You’re getting the café con leche. This is because Luis “Lou” Valdes, the restaurant’s charming owner, will look you directly in the eye — earnestly — and immediately turn your brain into mashed yucca. Male customers — not to be overlooked — are greeted with a chummy, “How’s it going, Chief?” and a handshake. All walks of life find camaraderie at the bar, sipping coladas and making light conversation throughout the day.
Built in 1976 by Valdes’s father, Luis Valdes Sr., the restaurant is actually the front portion of the family home where Valdes grew up (his great-aunt still lives in the building). Now, food is cranked out of a tiny open kitchen surrounded by a bar spanning the front. As a kid, Valdes helped his father prepare Cuban cuisine, learning the secrets of a great mojo marinade, succulent roast pork, and - of course - life.
“When I saw that movie, Chef, it brought tears to my eyes,” Valdes says. “When I was younger, I thought my dad was really tough on me. He was a Vietnam vet and I thought he was a hard-ass, but it taught me to be a strong man and to take care of the family. And I appreciate him teaching me that. I’m here until the day I retire.”
This particular day is bittersweet for Valdes: a year to the day of his father’s passing. A caption under one of the numerous photos of Luis Sr. reads,“R.I.P. Mi Viejo 7-14-14.” Another photo shows him as a young waiter at a swanky Havana nightclub in the ‘50s, serving a drink to the infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel.
“I consider my dad an icon,” Valdes says. “He taught me never to be scared, to always be focused, and to grow with the business. That’s how I teach my son and daughter. I want to leave this to them like he left it to me.”
Gathering strength from his father’s lessons, Valdes powers through his day. Prep begins early in the morning, the small crew (Valdes, his wife, Marta, and the couple’s longtime friend Betsy) making beef and chicken empanadas and croquetas de jamon. Valdes roasts six legs of pork a day, low and slow for 16 hours. The pork is the secret to the Cuban sandwiches here.” Instead of slicing it,” Valdes says, “we pull it, which keeps it extra juicy.”
Bill, a patron passing through from Lakeland, orders the Cuban steak platter with black beans and rice. “The steak is much more tender than I thought it would be…and the plantains are great.” Another first-time customer from Tampa says he decided to stop by after reading numerous reviews on Yelp. “I’ll put it in my top five,” he says of his Cuban sandwich.
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Valdes has recently added a new sandwich to the menu, “The 925,” featuring a “secret sauce” he makes with red peppers he grows himself and cooks in the sun. More of a spicy, vinegary relish, it goes well with just about any savory item on the menu.
Valdes has big plans for the future of 925 Nuevo's Cubano's. Currently, parking is a bit of an issue, so Valdes seeks to buy adjacent land to create a new parking lot. “Once I have the parking, I can hire more staff and keep this place open from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.”
Additionally, he hopes one day to open up the whole house as a restaurant. “If that goes well,” he says, “this place will be a landmark.” But with a packed bar of satisfied customers—locals and tourists alike—perhaps it already is. Gazing once again at the posters papering the walls with a full belly, I notice another that reads, “Fly to Cuba in 30 Minutes.”
925 Nuevo’s Cubano’s is located at 925 N. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. Hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. Call 954-806-8375.