Michael E. Miller | Miami New Times
On a warm morning in March, trash blows across a sidewalk in east Little Havana as a bus screeches to a halt in front of an empty restaurant. Its windows are too dark and dusty to see inside, but a banner near the roof offers signs of life: “Coming Soon: Raúl Galindo’s Original Latin American.” An old man slowly saunters through the crowd boarding the bus and up to the store. As he pushes open the door, Raúl Galindo breaks into song.
“Yo no sé nada,” belts out the 75-year-old restaurateur, stylishly outfitted in a trim beard, hipsterish Ray-Ban glasses, plaid shirt, and tie. A book of Cuban poetry is tucked under his arm. “Yo llegué ahora mismo. Si algo pasó, yo no estaba allí.” Galindo has good reason to sing: After half a decade of penury, he’s finally back in business.
For more than 30 years, Galindo was king of the Cuban sandwich. Heaping stacks of ham, pork, and Swiss cheese brought him fame and fortune. He opened nearly a dozen eateries around Miami that at their peak raked in more $12 million a year. And his best-known joint, Latin American Cafeteria on 29th Avenue and Coral Way, became the symbolic heart of el exilio, a hub of Cuban politics where deals were struck.
“Everybody went there,” remembers top chef and Miami native Douglas Rodriguez. “It was a show. You’d walk in and hear those guys tapping their blades on the cutting boards,” he says. “They were sandwich maestros.”
Like all empires, however, Galindo’s eventually came crashing down. Over the past decade, he has lost everything to two messy divorces, scores of lawsuits, and a pair of hurricanes. The Coral Way restaurant is now an empty lot. Instead, dozens of what Galindo calls “impostors” have sprung up around town, using variations of his restaurant’s name and sandwiches. But with younger business partners and a new location at SW First Street and 12th Avenue set to open this summer, Galindo is aiming for his old throne.
Michael E. Miller
“The original Latin American is dead and buried,” Galindo admits. “Now we have to dig it up with a pick and shovel and resurrect it.”
But not everyone is wishing him well. His rivals fear he will win back business, and at least one ex-wife thinks the sweet-talking old Cuban still owes her money.
“It’s a good thing that he’s opening another restaurant,” says Judith Espinosa. “At least my attorneys will have somewhere to go now.”
Galindo was born near Havana in 1936, later moving to the capital to run his family’s sandwich shop. But the young entrepreneur felt stifled by Castro’s communist state, and he fled to Chicago at age 30. He worked nights in a Zenith TV set factory but indulged his true passion by bringing massive cubanos to work with him every evening, selling some and giving the rest away. “Some people fall in love with a woman,” Galindo recalls. “I fell in love with sandwiches.”
He moved to Miami in 1970 and found work as a cook at a Calle Ocho café. But the owners didn’t know a thing about sandwiches, he says. “They were making them with boogers,” he laughs. “It was disgusting.”
Four years later, Galindo and his older brother, Luis, started Latin American Cafeteria on Coral Way. Unlike other joints, they served sandwiches made with fresh ingredients right in front of the customers. In fact, it was from behind the massive wooden chopping block that Galindo met his first wife, Madelaine Ferro, when the 17-year-old strolled into the restaurant looking for a job.
Business boomed as customers flocked to Latin American’s meaty sandwiches. But Galindo still insisted on personally overseeing his ever-expanding sandwich empire. He took to sleeping at his restaurants rather than heading home to his young wife and two kids.
His obsession finally cost him his first marriage. When he tried to expand the spot on Coral Way, Ferro put her foot down. They argued about his plan to buy a neighboring building for almost $2 million, and Galindo moved out. Ferro filed for divorce in 1990, eventually winding up with their mansion in Coral Gables, two restaurants, several other properties, and $24,000 in monthly alimony.
“It was my fault,” Galindo admits. “I was like a wandering ship captain, only instead of navigating the seas, I was navigating between all those restaurants.”
But Galindo had business problems as well. His early success bred contempt among his competitors. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, dozens of Cuban sandwich joints popped up around Miami, often using the Latin American name and lettering. In 1993 alone, Galindo sued eight copycat restaurants, demanding they change their names. The tactic rarely worked. Galindo even fell out with his brother after cutting him out of the Coral Way restaurant. Luis responded by suing Raúl and opening two of his own sandwich shops before dying in 1996.
Just when his first divorce was finally settled in 2000, Galindo was watching a mystery on TV one night when he spied a woman half his age enter his restaurant. When he asked her what she wished to do in life, Judith Espinosa said she wanted nothing more than to be a housewife.