The Los Angeles restaurant that sold Mexican food to Hollywood

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WHEN I was growing up in Stockton, California, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were only two special occasion restaurants acceptable to my family. They were both on the south side of the city, in the neighborhood. my mexican born grandfather He liked Mi Ranchito, and for my dad it was Arroyo's Café. No matter which one we went to, my order was always the same: ranch rib with rice, refried beans, and wilted unpeeled iceberg lettuce leaves with thick sauce. I pinched pieces of machine-pressed flour tortillas around the steak slices and tossed all the sides together. It was a celebration meal if ever there was one.

Today, Mexican restaurants may be ubiquitous in California, but in those days, even Chicano restaurants, where traditional recipes were adapted to American ingredients and palates, were rarely found outside of Latino enclaves.

A notable exception is Casa Vega, opened in 1956 in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, an exclusive, predominantly white neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Founder Rafael “Ray” Vega was born in National City, California, and grew up in Tijuana and Burbank., She relied on her mother's recipes and served, among other homemade Mexican American dishes, chile colorado dishes, a tasty meat stew., and mole rojo, mole-roasted chicken with its mix of dried chiles, peanut butter, bananas, raisins and other ingredients, gooey from ground tortilla chips. For many in the neighborhood, Casa Vega was their gateway to Mexican flavors.

In 1958, the restaurant needed a larger space and moved to its current location, a squat white building with a red tile roof two blocks away, at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Fulton Avenue. At the time, Sherman Oaks, within walking distance of film and television studios, was home to a growing number of actors and entertainment industry executives. From the beginning, Casa Vega attracted a famous audience. Marlon Brando, among many others, was a regular. “My dad would go at least once a week or we would pick up takeout, from before the '60s until he died in 2004,” says Miko Castaneda Brando, 63, one of the actor's sons. Brando's favorite order: a Carta Blanca beer, corn tortilla quesadilla, and chopped steak (a meat and vegetable stew).

In Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” set in 1969 and featuring iconic Hollywood locations, some scenes take place in the brick-walled dining room of Casa Vega, featuring characters Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio installed in a leather cabin. During filming, Christy Vega, 46, daughter of Ray Vega, says that Tarantino went behind the bar to make margaritas “his way,” with Casamigos Añejo tequila, a mix of citrus juices, and Stevia as a sweetener.. “Now it's on the menu like Tarantino,” he adds.

Christy's grandparents, Rafael Sr. and María “Mary” Vega, moved to Los Angeles from Tijuana, Mexico, in 1930 after leaving their jobs at the Agua Caliente Casino, a hotspot during the Prohibition era, to establish his own restaurant on the recently revitalized Calle Olvera. It was reborn that same year as a Mexican-themed tourist attraction. After two decades of running Café Caliente, Rafael Sr. and María opened another Mexican restaurant in Hollywood, but the reception was cold and it closed after four years.

“My dad opened Casa Vega so my grandparents could have something to do,” Christy says. Her grandparents prepared the restaurant for dinner service while Ray sold life insurance during the day, then I worked night shifts at the restaurant. After a few years, Ray turned his full-time attention to Casa Vega, turning it into one of the most popular Mexican cantinas in the city. Christy took over management of the restaurant in 2010 after Ray retired. and finally assumed ownership. Ray died in 2021 at age 86.

THE DECORATION OF Casa Vega hasn't changed much in decades. It's a romantic throwback, inspired by those early days at the Agua Caliente Casino, Christy says. The warmly lit dining room consists primarily of red leather tables and tables for two, all decorated with burgundy tablecloths. Western artist Lester Burton Hawks' paintings depict bullfighting life and culture in Mexico. The rug, also bright red, comes from a large quantity of rolls that Christy purchased at a restaurant inside Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. “Once a year we tear it down and paint the whole place,” she says. The adjacent bar is lined with high-back stools upholstered in the same tufted leather as the booths. Above the bar hangs a large number of wide-rimmed margarita glasses. “We are a Chicano restaurant, proudly,” says Christy.

Other touches, including the new Spanish Colonial-style wooden door at the entrance, wrought iron chandeliers, and ceramic urns, were carefully selected by members of the Vega family and added slowly over time. In 2022, An outdoor patio with seating for 100 people opened in the old parking lot. In recent years, Christy and head chef Braulio Arellano, who started at Casa Vega in the 1990s, have also been gradually updating the menu. The kitchen now produces shrimp ceviche, lobster enchiladas and a molcajete, a mixed grill served in a volcanic stone mortar. Bartenders rely more on fresh ingredients for their concoctions, rather than outdated blends, and offer artisanal mezcal as well as wine from Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe. But despite the few concessions to culinary trends, Casa Vega retains the same spirit of club and conviviality that Ray cultivated so many years ago.

Last month, on a Friday afternoon, I parked at the bar and watched Antonio Navarro, who has been shaking margaritas at Casa Vega for the past 20 years and speaks mellifluous Spanglish, dote on some locals. One woman ordered the usual: a frozen mango margarita and a steak quesadilla. Don Armado, a retired bartender who had worked at Casa Vega for more than 30 years, drank Coca-Cola on the rocks as Navarro gently cajoled him into accepting a refill of hot tortilla chips and salsa.

By 5 p.m., the sound of blenders and mariachi trumpets on the playlist had increased along with the chatter of the growing crowd. As I ate my baked green chile burrito, I suddenly felt nostalgic for those long-gone Sunday lunches with my grandparents. America has always loved our food, but not always our people, an irony that might go unnoticed by some of the glamorous patrons who have walked through Casa Vega's hacienda-style doors. I thought about how Ray Vega attracted Hollywood's elite to his Chicano restaurant, winning their loyalty with shots of tequila and combo plates of tacos, tamales and enchiladas, cleverly paving the way for many other Mexican-American restaurateurs to plant their own flag a lot. beyond Olvera Street. .



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