by Steven Hicks
Michael Sanchez’s family started their restaurant life in Southern California; one in Culver City, then Whittier, La Habra and Brea. Eventually, his father decided to sell the restaurants and move to Florida to escape to the tropical weather. His wife (Michael’s mother) is Mexican, so Florida was more the father’s climate. “We ended up here in 1992. We didn’t have Cuban food in California. That didn’t happen until after we moved to Florida,” Sanchez says.
“About 25 years in, my father added a couple of Cuban items to the menu at our Titusville restaurant, then a couple more, and the next thing you know, we’re a Cuban/Mexican restaurant. There were no other Cuban restaurants around, so it worked out very well. There are people who don’t like one or the other, but almost everyone likes one of the two. They are such complete opposites. Mexican has a lot of peppers and spice; Cuban has hardly any peppers. Cuban is mostly citrus & garlic; the spice profile is completely different.” Sanchez adds. That worked out extremely well for the family,even though at the time, Sanchez remembers telling his father, “I don’t know about this mix of Cuban and Mexican. But, he was right. He usually was.”
Sanchez didn’t just build a restaurant and open the doors; he assembled a team of people he trusted. Some new hires certainly, but also experienced employees from his El Leoncito in Titusville; a few of them from California who’d moved here with his father. Even Chef Antonio, who had retired to Guadalajara after 40 years with the family, has come back to work with Chef Gerardo to get this restaurant running smoothly. Gerardo joined the group after Antonio retired a few years ago. He’s from Peru, and now El Leoncito’s primary chef.
Enough about the family, though that says a lot about a restaurant. How’s the food? Sanchez says, “We’ve been cooking everything from scratch. We do not believe in frozen food. Our freezer is always pretty empty. Everyday, Gerardo is in the kitchen cooking from scratch.” Sanchez says one of the most popular things on the menu is the Churrasco, “a nice Angus steak with a little bit of Chimichurri,” he adds. “We actually have 2 separate marinades for that one to give it the flavor we like.” But what is his favorite? “I’d say my personal favorite is Enchiladas Rancheras. That’s just a real normal dish, nothing fancy, but really good. The Mojarra is really good, too. It is a whole snapper with a cilantro sauce. Gerardo does a fantastic job preparing that one.” Sanchez laughs, “I’m getting hungry now, talking about it. I haven’t eaten anything else today. All this sounds pretty good. Everyone is doing such a great job. I’m really happy with everybody here, and to be part of this community.”
Did you know?
El Leoncito features Mariachis walking through the restaurant on the 2nd and last Wednesdays of each month. Sanchez says, “They’re the best Mariachis in Central Florida. I took a month listening to every single band I could imagine, and they’re by far the best. If you’ve ever seen or been to an event and there is a Mariachi band, it is usually them, Mariachi Guadalajara. Terry Z will also play outside once a month. He adds fun, tropical music like Jimmy Buffett, and a few Spanish songs.”