When Arianna Cruz's parents visit Florida from Caracas and crave authentic Latin American cuisine, she takes them to one of her favorite Venezuelan food joints—the local gas station.
Tucked inside a Chevron in Weston is Panna Express, a Latin American cafe that doubles as a gas station and triples as a car wash.
It has become a go-to place for the large Venezuelan population, which numbers in the thousands, in the Broward suburb that is sometimes referred to as Westonzuela.
"Their cachitos and tequeños are the best I've ever tried," said Cruz, a 37-year-old Weston resident, during a recent visit with her folks. Cachitos, she explained, are baked ham and cheese turnovers; tequeños are similar to cheese sticks.
Cruz said the joint has also become a colombo-venezolano gathering place, where Colombians and Venezuelans can collect free periodicals from their countries as they have their morning coffee.
Mauricio Meneses, the 40-year-old Venezuelan immigrant who owns the business with sister Beatriz Morrison, said that when they first bought the gas station in 2000, they had no idea what they were getting into. "I don't come from a gas station or a bakery background," he said.
Meneses quickly realized then that, in order to stay in business, he'd have to lure customers in to his particular gas station. He thought it would be useful to wash people's cars and feed them as they waited. Though he could have gone the potato chips and Slim Jims route, he decided to focus on sandwiches, burgers and "Latin delights," like arepas.
"It's pretty much a restaurant within a gas station," Meneses said.
Now, he sells 600 to 700 cachitos a day, and says tequeños are becoming a new favorite, sometimes even outselling the cachitos.
Panna Express has two other locations — one in Doral and the other inside Marlins Stadium. It's planning to expand to a gas station on Stirling Road, near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
"Our business, regardless of the economy, has been increasing in volume," he said. "I realize it's because of the big Venezuelan and Colombian communities."
At 8 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, some of the restaurant's middle-aged regulars huddled around their favorite table—the first one by the door—to eat breakfast, drink morning cortaditos and discuss politics and the latest news on Chavez. who is also nicknamed "el que te conté" ["the one I told you about"].
The group of men, who get together every day, has become a fixture at Panna Express.
Jorge Pérez, a 70-year-old Cuban who joins the group every week, said the majority of them come in the early morning, usually in the middle of the week.
"This is our version of the Versailles in Miami," he said, referring to the Little Havana joint that bills itself as the world's most famous Cuban restaurant and serves as a gathering place for the area's Cuban population, "but without as many old people."
Perez, who lived in Puerto Rico for almost 50 years before moving to Weston, said most of the talk centers around Venezuelan and Cuban politics because Weston has a large share of exiles from those countries. But not everyone is from either of those countries, nor is the group exclusive to Latin American exiles, or even to those who speak Spanish.
"There's an American for whom we translate everything," Perez said in Spanish, and pointed to a white-haired man sitting in front of him. The man smiled and nodded. "He's very much in the loop."
They sometimes join tables together and can add up to almost 20 people, according to Rico Iribarren, who works at a BMW dealership in Coconut Creek and considers himself a "founding member" of the group.
"I've been coming here every day for the past nine years," he said, a small foam coffee cup in his hand. "It would take some sickness or something like that for me not to come."
Iribarren said the men, who come and go throughout the morning before the start of the workday, aren't always focused on politics.
Sometimes, they'll talk about cars or the headlines of the day.
Meneses understands that not everyone comes for the food, though they're still potential customers. "There are people who come in to pump gas and discover you by mistake," he said.
Mary Pereira, a 63-year-old retired American professor, nibbled on a meat-and-potato empanada as she waited for her car to get detailed.
"I bought this on a pure whim because I went in to pay for the car wash and got hungry," she said.