April 25, 2024

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The Los Angeles Restaurant That Sold Hollywood on Mexican Food

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WHEN I WAS growing up in Stockton, Calif., in the 1970s and ’80s, there were only two special-occasion restaurants acceptable to my family. They were both on the south side of the city, in the barrio. My Mexican-born abuelo liked Mi Ranchito, and for my dad it was Arroyo’s Cafe. No matter which one we went to, my order was always the same: rib steak ranchero with rice, refried beans and leaves of undressed iceberg lettuce wilted by soupy salsa. I’d pinch torn pieces of machine-pressed flour tortillas around the slices of steak and mix in all the sides. It was a celebratory meal if there ever was one.

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

One notable exception is Casa Vega, which opened in 1956 in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. The founder, Rafael “Ray” Vega was born in National City, Calif., and raised in Tijuana and Burbank, drew from his mother’s recipes, serving, among other home-style Mexican American dishes, plates of chile colorado, a savory beef stew, and mole rojo, roast chicken in mole with its blend of dried chiles, peanut butter, plantains, raisins and other ingredients, viscous from ground tortilla chips. For many in the neighborhood, Casa Vega was their gateway to Mexican flavors.

By 1958, the restaurant needed a larger space and moved into its current location, a squat white building with a red tile roof two blocks away, on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Fulton Avenue. At the time, Sherman Oaks, a short drive from movie and television studios, was home to a growing number of entertainment industry executives and actors. From early on, Casa Vega drew a celebrity crowd. Marlon Brando, among many others, was a regular. “My dad went at least once a week or we’d pick up food to go, from before the ’60s to when 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 steak picado (a beef-and-vegetable stew).

In Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 movie, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which is set in 1969 and features iconic Hollywood haunts, a few scenes take place in Casa Vega’s brick-walled dining room, with Brad Pitt’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters ensconced in a leather booth. During the filming, Christy Vega, 46, Ray Vega’s daughter, says Tarantino got behind the bar to make margaritas “his way,” with Casamigos Añejo tequila, a blend of citrus juices and Stevia as a sweetener. “It’s now on the menu as the Tarantino,” she adds.

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

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

THE DÉCOR OF Casa Vega hasn’t changed much in decades. It’s a romantic throwback, inspired by those early days at Agua Caliente Casino, says Christy. The warmly lit dining room consists mostly of red leather booths and tables for two, all set with burgundy tablecloths. Paintings by the Western artist Lester Burton Hawks depict Mexican life and bullfighting culture. The carpet, also deep red, is from an overrun of rolls that Christy bought from a restaurant inside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. “Once a year we rip it up and paint the whole place,” she says. The adjoining barroom is lined with high-backed stools upholstered in the same tufted leather as the booths. Above the bar hangs an ample supply of wide-rimmed margarita glasses. “We are a Chicano restaurant, proudly,” says Christy.

Other touches, including the newer Spanish Colonial-style wooden door at the entrance, wrought-iron chandeliers and ceramic urns, were handpicked by Vega family members and slowly added over time. In 2022, a 100-seat outdoor patio opened in the old parking lot. Over the last few years, Christy and the head chef, Braulio Arellano, who started at Casa Vega in the 1990s, have been gradually updating the menu, too. The kitchen now turns out 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 mixes, and offer craft mezcal, as well as wine from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe. But despite the few concessions to culinary trends, Casa Vega retains the same clubby, convivial spirit that Ray cultivated all those years ago.

Last month, on a late Friday afternoon, I stationed myself at the bar and watched Antonio Navarro, who has been shaking house margaritas at Casa Vega for the last 20 years and speaks mellifluous Spanglish, dote on a few locals. One woman ordered her usual: a frozen mango margarita and steak quesadilla. Don Armado, a long-retired server who had worked at Casa Vega for over 30 years, drank Coca-Cola on the rocks while Navarro gently cajoled him into accepting a refill of warm tortilla chips and salsa.

By 5 p.m., the sound of whirring blenders and soaring mariachi trumpets on the playlist had crescendoed along with the chatter of the growing crowd. As I spooned up my oven-style chile verde burrito, I felt suddenly 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 be lost on some of the glamorous customers that have walked through the hacienda-style doors of Casa Vega. I thought of how Ray Vega lured the Hollywood elite to his Chicano restaurant, earning their loyalty with tequila shots and combo plates of tacos, tamales and enchiladas, slyly paving the way for countless other Mexican American restaurateurs to plant their own flag well beyond Olvera Street.

Bill Esparza

2024-02-27 23:09:22

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