Danny and Albert Teran want to tell a story.
The brothers are the owners of Millie’s, a Cuban restaurant up Wilson Avenue, a windy stretch of Bushwick organized around the M train’s rumble and newly built soft-shell condos. The Terans want to tell the story of how a food truck called Bongo Brothers–owned by them, the brothers–had became Millie’s; a journey they attribute, in that kind of way that must seem funny now, to the litigiousness of Gloria Estefan’s legal team. This is the dream, they insist. The end point of their heart and soul can be located on the menu, between the ropa vieja and the Frita, which the menu calls a ‘cuban-style cheeseburger.’
“The vision of Millie’s Cafe is to be a fast casual concept,” Danny says.
His voice navigates the careful, infinitely inclusive lingua franca of small business-ese with the enthusiasm and stamina of a reality-TV show host. A half-decade ago, he told Brokelyn that Bushwick “maybe wasn’t ready” for a Cuban restaurant. Instead he ran a restaurant that specializes in grilled cheeses; and an antique shop he named after his father.
But things are different now.
Cuban food marked his first attempt to find a culinary niche. (Only later, almost as an aside, does Danny mention that he is Cuban, that his parents left after Castro took over. There are faded photos hanging on a section of exposed brick facade in Millie’s–which had previously been a real estate office–of family members under the island’s balmy sun. A neon cursive script above reads: “Half Of My Heart Is In…”) With Albert, he had run Bongo Brothers, a food truck that started operations in 2009, a boat adrift in the sea of Halal Brothers and Gorilla Cheese NYC. “We had never opened a business before,” Danny says, not without nostalgia, “Fast casual Cuban food.”
Albert interjects: “Basically the same menu that we serve here.”
Albert is older and straight-talking, he says what is needed. While Danny grew businesses like his children, Albert got married and had children of his own. He was a dishwasher at the age of fifteen, and later a graduate of the New York Restaurant School, a for-profit monument of concrete that later rebranded as the Art Institute of New York City before shuttering its doors in the most recent for-profit college crash. He worked the “business,” thankful and thankless jobs at Jean Georges’ shuttered project Vong, at French cafes with names lost to Manhattan’s noisy din. While Danny projects drive, drive, drive–he had gone to college for the recording arts and has the eyes of a singer and says, even now and without a hint of regret: “I get a lot out of working with a lot of DJs”–Albert is a portrait of contentment.
The menu at the Bongo Brothers was his creation, and Albert still remembers its glory days: catering Viacom speaking engagements, feeding white collar employees at Google and Goldman Sachs. Danny, for his part, instead recalls coverage by food blogs and local news stations. “The only Cuban food truck in town,” reported CBS’ New York affiliate, blessing its $7 Cubano sandwiches as blending “really well together.”
“We were getting a lot of blogs writing about us,” Danny says, and alleges that the excitement garnered the attention of Estefan’s legal team, who sent the solitary truck a cease-and-desist letter over its infringement of the mark of an unrelated culinary attraction called Bongo’s Cuban Cafe, which sat in Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort and shuttered last year. Danny turned to consulting, Albert turned back to the world of working other people’s kitchens. What happens to a dream deferred?
The process of watching a new business is illuminating and, even two years after its opening, Millie’s still feels new: every fixture feels like it was bought yesterday. Large photographic prints cover the walls and a framed paper hanging below informs interested customers that these are the works of local photographers Keith Marlowe and Harriet Roberts. The images show vintage-style shots of Havana, circa 2017. Along with the omnipresent plant features that hang on the walls, below windows, and the multiple fluffy parrots that sit in fake cages, Millie’s presents slices of a past enclosed inside the hard, minimal lines of today’s smart business. The restaurant and it’s features made possible after capital investment and partnership with Thumbs Capital Group, LLC.
The overall effect is something like Wes Anderson’s Havana, or maybe his dream Miami suburb. There are bright colors and the burgers come neatly stamped: Millie’s, in the dramatic curl of some impossible cursive font. There are enamel pins sold at the counter, which provide buyers a discount on coffee. Customers can also get a card stamped; free coffee at its end. Customers who tag the restaurant on social media also qualify for a free pastry.
The space feels so magically anywhere, a free-standing idea of what Cuban means when it’s applied to food. Unprompted, Danny brings up Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine, a competing chain of Cuban restaurants popular in Manhattan’s midtown.
“They’re more cafeteria-style, like slop kind of food on the plate,” Danny says, indicating something fancier and elegant about his project.
But Albert interjects: “Fancier but not pretentious.”
“As we all kind of know, Bushwick, a lot of people are moving into the neighborhood and it’s becoming what it is,” he says, the last lines bringing to mind one of last year’s celebrated movies; Joe Pesci in The Irishman: It is what it is.
But maybe not for long. Millie’s has plans.
“Our target is places like Crown Heights,” Danny says, eyeing the future with enviable ease.
Top photo by Andrew Karpan for Bushwick Daily.
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