Five years ago, the name Michell Sanchez would have meant nothing to a South Florida foodie. Today, they know the Latin House Grill chef and owner for more than just a restaurant, and a menu.
Many of them are his followers -- patrons during his Miami food truck days, where he got his start -- still obsessed with the same dishes that made him famous: giant, deep-fried burritos, specialty flattons, or brownies fried in dough and smothered in a sweet, condensed milk.
Now, Broward County residents can discover these dishes -- and the chef behind the creative, Latin-inspired menu -- at the newly opened Latin House Grill in Pembroke Pines.
See Also: New Times' Pairings Pre-Party Tonight
The restaurant will be celebrating the grand opening of its second location in early October, a homecoming of sorts for many of the loyal customers that made the weekly track to see Latin House Grill when it was a roving kitchen on wheels. You see, before Sanchez opened his restaurant in Miami, Latin House Grill was a food truck.
For some, the mobile kitchen is an easy way to break into the industry; for people like Sanchez and his wife, Bella, it was the start to a new life.
"Cooking had always been a passion for me," said Sanchez, who joined the United States Air Force after graduating high school. "At the time, I didn't want to cook for a living. I didn't want to lose the love for it."
All that changed with a struggling economy. Looking back in early 2010, Sanchez recalls hard times in his line of work buying and selling gold.
"I lost everything. My car. My condo. I had to move in with my mother, into an efficiency apartment. Then, she lost her job [as a pastry chef at Versailles Cuban Restaurant in Miami]. It was a perfect storm," said Sanchez. "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."
Inspiration helped change his mind. Sanchez credits most of his success to Bella, whose culture and heritage opened his mind -- and palate -- to the world of Mexican cuisine. Her love of spices, combined with his mother's Cuban recipes, are what helped bring the Latin House Grill to life.
In 2010, when the food truck craze had yet to take hold of South Florida, Sanchez rolled out with just a handful of other mobile kitchens. He set up shop at the corner of Bird Rd. and 83rd St. in Miami, and made $27 on his first day of business selling burgers and tacos, as well as his now-famous specialty items known as chimes and flattons. At the time, it was a family affair: his wife took the orders, while his mother worked the flat-top alongside him.
Although business started out slow, in just a few months patrons began to look for the flame-wrapped truck. The Latin House Grill became so popular, in fact, that some customers would follow the truck back to Sanchez's home, asking for more food. Sanchez lovingly referred to such patrons as "stalkers" and created a special stalker box just for them -- a sampler platter of the most popular menu items for $8-$15.
"It helped us stick out from the crowd, and that was the turning point. Soon, we had 80-plus people waiting in line," said Sanchez. "And this was before all these food truck round-ups and city events. This was just us on the street, making the daily grind."
In 2012, Sanchez sold both his food trucks, and took the plunge into the restaurant world, opening his first brick and mortar restaurant in Brickell. The menu -- an extension of the food truck's favorite items with new specialty dishes added to the mix -- became an instant hit.
To this day, family is still involved. His mother continues to prepare many of the menu items fresh each day, as well as the sofrito (a recipe even Sanchez doesn't know), while his sister hand-rolls each brownie (another secret recipe) for the restaurant's popular balls of fury dessert.
The quintessential Latin House dish remains the "mad love" burger, a shout to Sanchez's favorite WuTang song lyrics. Today, the chef says it's a term he uses to describe how he feels about everything in his life.
"It's amazing to me, to see a packed house and a half-hour wait outside," said Sanchez. "It's the kind of thing that brings a tear to my eye. I have mad love for everyone."
Expect to hear Sanchez's name a lot more; he's already plotting several additional Florida locations in the next five years, including cities like West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Sarasota, and the Keys.
Looks like it's time to spread the love.
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.