Restaurant specializes in international cuisine

Hardworking is an understatement for new restaurant owners – and brothers – Julian and Christian Velez.

Julian, 30, borrowed $100 from his cousin and moved to Key West six years ago. He spent months sleeping on the stock room floor of a T-shirt shop, surrounded by boxes he’d have to sort through in the morning.

For three years, he saved money, then opened his own shop, “Life in Paradise,” with Christian, 25. Now, with the blessing of the former owners, the two have taken over the former Juan and Lucy’s restaurant at 124 Duval St. and opened “Paradise.” Lucy said she couldn’t think of two more hardworking young men to pass the restaurant reins to.

“We kept the Juan and Lucy’s traditional Cuban menu,” said Julian, “but have added our favorite Colombian dishes also.” Ninety-eight percent of the Velez family still lives in Colombia, and the brothers are happy to bring a little bit of their home country’s flavor to Key West.

“Paradise” is found down a short corridor and opens to a garden area with Latin music playing on the speakers. Server Jackie, originally from Cuba, welcomes guests with a “hola” and a smile and offers her famous mojitos or a traditional Colombian Michelada – a beer with a squeeze of lemon, fresh chunked mango, pimienta spice, and a salt rim. (By the way, it’s fantastic!)

A Colombian favorite: bandeja paisa. Served with steak, rice, beans, fried egg, chicharron, plantains and avocado. Julian says it’s served just like he’d find in his hometown of Medellin. “You’re getting here what you would get there,” he said.

The portion sizes are huge, and for $19, the dinner is a steal. They also have sancocho and ajiaco, a Colombian style stew and soup, and lomo saltado, in addition to the Cuban favorites like paella (which needs to be ordered in advance), palomilla steak, ropa vieja, and pechuga de pollo. They also offer a generous local’s discount of 20 percent off.

“This is a great place, great atmosphere, and off the beaten Duval Street path,” said Paaj and Ben, who were visiting from Minnesota on their honeymoon. “The quesadilla was twice the size I expected it to be.”

The restaurant is open from noon to 10 p.m., and don’t forget to try the homemade hot sauce, “Castro’s Breath.”

Soccer and Latin food go hand in hand

The brothers are happy to talk soccer with any of the guests, seeing as Christian was a part of the U.S. national team before an injury sidelined him, and is currently an owner of an indoor soccer team in Kendall.

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