When Ray Vega opened Casa Vega in 1956, he was following in his parents’ footsteps. They founded and ran Cafe Caliente, a Mexican restaurant on Olvera Street, for 18 years. Ray was never shy about sharing his motto: Work hard—and when you think you’re done, work more. And that ethic clearly paid off. Casa Vega is still going strong 65 years later.
This anniversary year, however, is bittersweet. In January, during the second pandemic shutdown, Ray died from COVID at 86. For daughter Christy, at the helm of the eatery since her father retired 10 years ago, it was crushing. “I had lost the restaurant and my father and wondered how to survive such a dual loss. I asked myself, would I be able to get the restaurant back up and running again? Would it ‘turn on’ without Dad? After a bit, I could feel my family watching from heaven telling me it was my turn to save the restaurant again and to make them proud. So I dried my tears, put on my chef shoes, and got back to work.”
Luckily, Casa Vega, which has had some of the same employees for decades, did turn back on. And Christy says she and her family are humbled by the support they got from the Valley community and loyal customers.
Above: A snapshot of the eatery on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks from the early 1970s
So does she think the Casa Vega legacy will continue with her four sons?
“All my sons show interest in the business: My oldest, Jackson (17), works one night a week during school and a full shift during summers. My 15-year-old is asking to work as a busser during school breaks. All the boys were with me at the restaurant during the pandemic, packing orders, running pickup orders to cars. They saw me fighting so hard to save our legacy. I think as a family, we all appreciate Casa Vega a little more now.”
Not surprisingly, an LA institution as beloved as Casa Vega draws its share of Hollywood fans. Here we share reflections from some of the celebrities who have enjoyed tacos and margaritas in those signature red leather booths.
“Casa Vega has become a home away from home for me. The familiar atmosphere, faces, and most of all, the food are all so comforting. Christy is simply the best, and she is continuing her dad’s legacy and making him proud.”
“Now more than ever, I think about those places where the best memories of my life have occurred. Those places where you know upon entering that you’re almost guaranteed to make more memories. To me, the high-backed red booths of Casa Vega are like a hug. They have hugged me while me and my kids have inhaled too many desserts. And they have kept me supported while I’ve inhaled too many mango margaritas with my friends. I have missed my Casa Vega hugs during this crazy time!”
“Me and Marlon (Brando) lived up the street from Casa Vega—up on Mulholland—and we used to go there several times a week in the ’70s. Sometimes we’d take Marlon’s children. We’d walk in, pass the bar—Marlon did not drink—and we’d sit in the first booth on the right in the dining room. It was dark, and he liked it because no one would bother him. Back in those days it was just Mexicans and Valley folk in there. You rarely saw celebrities. We saw Jack (Nicholson) and Angelica (Houston) in there a couple of times but that was about it. Marlon liked Mexicans a lot—one of his wives was Mexican—and he liked Mexican food, especially Casa Vega’s burritos.”
“I’ve been happy regular since 1969, when I came from New York to LA to star in a play. The first night I arrived, a friend took me to Casa Vega. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I fell in love with the food, the margaritas (many), the atmosphere of joy and celebration, and Ray, who treated an unknown actor like a celebrity and friend.
“Later that year, not having much luck acting, I was down to my last $25. I decided to blow it all at Casa Vega. When I finished my dinner, Ray brought me the check. It was for $0.00. I asked him why. He told me that it was for good luck. The next day I got a guest star role in a TV show. It started my career. I figure 50% of it was my audition and 50% was the guacamole and chips.”