Weston, Broward’s western-most suburb, is a clash of cultures that turns out beautifully
By Eric Barton
You have to understand something about the gas station at the east entrance to Weston. It’s called Panna Cafe Express, and you might mistake it for just another suburban gas station.
But it’s not. It’s more, so much more.
First off, there’s just the enormity of it. It’s a block long, with a Spanish tile roof and green awnings. The car wash is at one end. Nine-thousand cars a month get washed there.
Then there’s the bakery. The specialty is the cachito – it looks like a closed-up sub of sweet bread stuffed with ham. The way it melts on your tongue, gooey and soft, is magic.
It’s always busy. In the mornings at Panna, the seats are full of people stopping off on their way to work, some with uniform shirts but mostly they wear dresses and dress shirts with ties. In the afternoons, school buses stop out front. A dozen, maybe more, kids order cachitos and tequenos, cheese sticks baked with a pretzel-like dough around them. Moms who show up talk through open windows of their SUVs in a mix of Spanish and English, sometimes in the same sentence. They rush off to soccer practice, more than likely, because that’s what the kids do in Weston.
If you stay at Panna long enough, here at the entrance to South Florida’s farthest west suburb, you’ll begin to understand this town. Its little stories that add up to the big one. It’s Weston, right here in one block behind the gas pumps.
Weston is, perhaps, America’s most spanglish town. It’s an idyllic planned community split nearly perfectly between Hispanics and everyone else. It’s where everything works just the way it should.
This heterogeneity is all new. When Weston was built in 1985 by Arvida and Disney, it was, with few exceptions, as homogeneous as a piece of Wonderbread. Back then, Arvida dredged the wetlands to make roads that meandered left and right on the way to who knew where.
Twenty years ago, when Ed and Tracey Dikes moved in, the town numbered little more than 9,000 people. Now it’s approaching 70,000. “I remember driving down I-75 and I was the only car,” Ed recalls. “You’d give directions by saying, ‘Turn when you see cows.’”
The city’s demographics – or, maybe more accurately, demographic – changed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Hispanic families fled wrecked southern Miami-Dade and found Weston. Nobody knows why, exactly, but they just started coming. Then Venezuela elected Hugo Chavez president in 1999, and exiles headed to Weston. Colombians joined them. Again, nobody knows why.
In 2001, the Dikes opened Weston Jewelers in the new Weston Town Center, a planned downtown. The Starbucks there became the town’s unofficial meeting place. And something funny happened. Unlike South Florida towns where everyone hangs out in their own circles, everybody just started going to the same places together here.
“Now they call it Westonzuela,” Tracey says.
“It’s because,” Ed explains, “we are this magnificent melting pot.”
Ed goes a few days a week to Panna. He’s met all kinds of customers there. Thing is, businesses do well in Weston. It helps that everybody is affluent. The median household income here – about $94,000 – is nearly twice what it is in Broward overall. That’s true for the median value of homes too, which is heading towards 400 grand.
Homes here have always had a high value among people with kids. Weston schools get “A” rankings every year, for 10 years now. Then there are the parks – ball fields everywhere and entertainment like the free movies that show on Saturday nights. There’s also this: Seemingly every road in Weston is landscaped with oak trees and crayon-green grass. Everywhere.
“Life in Weston is good these days,” says Mayor Daniel Stermer. He points to the bike lanes, all 51 miles of them. The League of American Bicyclists gave Weston a Bicycle Friendly Communities award last year. You don’t see people using the bike lanes to get to work, Stermer explains, because Weston is largely a commuter town. But on weekends, there are pelotons of people. “You can go through the entire city and do circuits in the bike lanes,” Stermer says.
If you ride along with the bicyclists, or drive with your windows down next to them, you’ll notice something: directions are shouted in English and Spanish. Colorful cycling jerseys have messages in both languages.
It’s like that at the restaurants too. The crowds are a mix at Acquolina (which is hard to get into) and Bellini (which is even harder to get into). You’ll see guys in a mix of Lacoste polos and rugby shirts, all waiting for a table at Bellini on a Friday night.
Then, on Saturday mornings, that same mixed crowd heads over to La Pequeña Colombia. A lot of them, they order the bandeja paisa, like a South American version of an English breakfast, with corn cakes and eggs and chicharon and a terrific salsa.
And then, on Monday mornings, they’ll all head back to Panna on their way out of town. They’ll get a to-go cup of coffee, made for the discerning Venezuelan palate, in orders described as dark or clear, with or without bubbles.
The manager, Horacio Parra, says people always ask him about the name. People assume it’s after the Venezuelan slang panna, like buddy or bro. But it’s actually named after the pastry sauce.
In his office, at the quieter end of the Panna plaza, the manager has a look of pride as he explains how residents talk about Panna. “It’s where they meet,” he says. “If you’re going to meet someone for coffee, you come here.”
That’s true whether you speak Spanish or English or root for football or futbol. Because, here in Weston, spanglish has found a home.
Worth The Trip
Nearly every major road in Weston features a wide bike lane. There’s 51 miles of them snaked through the city, more than anywhere else in South Florida. On weekends, packs of riders can often be spotted making loops or heading over to the mountain bike trails at Markham Park, just north of the city. Weston has also become home to the blossoming sport of hard-court bike polo, including hosting last year’s world championship.
Regional Park at Weston
20200 Saddle Club Road, 954-389-4321
By day, this 102-acre park boasts eight baseball fields, eight football and soccer fields, basketball courts, roller hockey, playgrounds and concessions. The exercise trail travels 8,000 feet through the Everglades-bordered park. At night, events like free movies attract families and picnickers by the thousands.
Weston Town Center
1675 Market St., Weston, 954-349-5900, westontowncenter.net
Weston’s downtown opened just over a decade ago and quickly became the heart of the city, with doctor and lawyer offices, clothing stores and hair salons, and restaurants and bars. A Duffy’s sports bar is coming soon, and the new 100 Montaditos can’t seem to make enough Spanish sandwiches to slow down the crowds. On March 9, the Symphony of the Americas will perform for free at an outdoor concert.
Weston Hills Golf Club
2600 Country Club Way, Weston, 954-384-4600, westonhillsgolfclub.com
Aside from the two Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed 18-hole courses, the country club regularly holds mixers for non-members and the Dancing Under the Palms gala.
1728 Main St., Weston, 954-389-7990,
There aren’t many downtown shopping areas anchored by a jeweler, but Weston Jewelers just might be that for Town Center. It’s a gleaming collection of wearable art by name-brand jewelry makers like Bulgari and Chopard, and then an extensive collection of watches, from Cartier to Breitling to Vacheron Constantin.“Elite” customers receive chauffeured concierge service within 50 miles of the store, and if you don’t find anything you like, Weston Jewelers has its own design team on standby to create the perfect piece.
If You Go
2320 Weston Road, Weston,
Bellini Italian Bistro
2780 Weston Road, Weston,
Panna Cafe Express
2620 Weston Road, Weston,
La Pequeña Colombia
1300 SW 160th Ave., Weston,
1739 Main St., Weston,
1728 Main St., Weston,