Niche Market | Hand-Rolled Cigars

Don Luis VIP Cigars
1851 Westchester Ave
Bronx, NY, 10472

In the dim light of a Bronx cigar shop, Al Bryant stretched out on a brown leather couch, watching TV and taking long, slow drags from a fat cigar as a passing No. 6 train rumbled on the elevated tracks nearby.

“There are not too many places that a person like me can feel all that comfortable outside of your own apartment,” said Bryant, who works for the transportation department. “I can come here without worrying about offending anybody.”

Don Luis VIP, a cigar shop, serves as a living room for those craving a safe place to smoke tobacco in a city where the regulations on smoking have been getting heavier in recent years.

It’s where police officers, sanitation workers and lawyers come to get a taste of cigars that are hand crafted by Felix Diaz, who rolls as many as 200 a day in the shop’s basement as he listens to Spanish radio.

Diaz sits at an old wooden table customized for the trade, rustling through a deep pile of dry leaves, crinkling them in hands that first started rolling 44 years ago in the Dominican Republic.

When he came to the U.S., Diaz brought his wooden cigar molder, his chaveta — a sharp blade, and a cigar cutter.

To the unknowledgeable eye, the leaves appear indistinguishable. But Diaz carefully selects a variety of leaves imported from various Latin American countries — but all grown from Cuban seeds — to form custom flavors and textures.

After rolling, he presses the cigar into the molding and leaves it for a few hours under pressure before he wraps the leaves with a moistened thin capote leaf.

“They’re the finest cigars you can buy,” said a dapper Louis Lamboy, who made a recent stop to pick up three Dominican cigars, which Abreu placed in a ziplock bag. “I come all the way from Bruckner Blvd. down on 40th Street just to get cigars here.”

The shop is owned by Dario Abreu and Don Luis (who’s real name is Antonio Alvarez), who took over an existing shop in this location three years ago.

“Guys come here like 8 o’clock at night and at 2 o’clock in the morning they’re still here,” said Don Luis. “Talking, gossiping, watching sports, watching movies, and smoking cigars.”

He later added, “They come here and whine for their wives, girlfriends whatever, smoke good cigars, and when they leave they leave happy and then go about their business, do whatever they have to do.”

They sell a large variety of blends, ranging from $4 to $25 each, the most popular are torpedoes and robustos. Some, like Bryant, spend as much as $1500 a month on the habit.

Football games are the busiest times in the shop, which can get packed with as many as 50 people on weekends. In the summer, men play dominoes on tables in the sun outside. The shop does not have a liquor license, but it’s BYOB.

Marvin Diaz picks up cigars at Don Luis VIP every few days. Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer

Interview with shop co-owner Antonio Alvarez, aka “Don Luis”

Can you explain why the cigars are made with different leaves?

They’re different kinds of tobacco, a mixture of different leaves for different countries. People think when you smoke a cigar, they all come from Cuba. No. That’s wrong. Cuba has a whole bunch of different cigars, but the problem with Cuban cigars is they’re only be selling in Cuba. But they export the leaves to all different countries in the world — all the seeds rather. So when they plant the seeds, it’s actually a Cuban seed being grown in different countries in the world. So when you go to the Dominican Republic and you say, ‘I want a Cuban cigar.’ Actually they give you a Cuban cigar, because it’s Cuban leaves. But we have our own cigars.

Who are your customers?

Anybody. Anybody who walks in is welcome. We don’t choose our customers; the customers choose us. We’ve got people coming here from different parts of the Bronx to buy cigars. We have good clientele like sanitation guys, police officers, businessmen, Congressmen — everyone comes here. … It’s not only a gentleman’s club. They can bring their wives, girlfriends, whatever, you name it. They can bring it. We’re not going to tell them, ‘She cannot come in,’ because we lose business that way.

What makes this place different from other cigar shops?

Other cigar stores, they don’t have the independence we have here. They can come here and scream if they want to, holler at the sports. Other places, that doesn’t happen. You come in here, the remote control is there — anybody can grab it. Other places, you can’t. You have to watch what they watch. And you don’t feel comfortable.

A guy comes in here and we’re watching a show, and he says, ‘I want to watch something else.’ You know what we tell him? ‘Grab the remote.’ … Most of the other places are very strict when it comes to behavior, in other words, not too much noise, got to be calmed down, no scream, no nothing — especially when there’s a football game. They scream, they holler, they curse.

The majority of people who watch the sport, they’re all correction officers. They come here and have fun, so we can’t stop that. With other places, that cannot happen. That’s why they come here.

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