Rafael “Ray” Vega opened his Casa Vega restaurant in 1956, near the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Fulton Avenue in Los Angeles. (It moved to the actual corner in 1958.) My parents, two sisters, and I arrived from New York, to a house very nearby, not that long after, in December 1959.
I was, by any definition, still a little kid. My youngest sister was a baby, able to ride for free on American Airlines—on our mother’s lap—for the then-interminable flight from Idlewild (now JFK) to L.A.
My Dad, Robert P. Lieb, had an admirable career as a character actor, but money was tight, and Casa Vega was a place that we could afford to go as a family. It had two things we had never experienced before. The first was Mexican food — more specifically, the “Mexican food” of the time, with things that we had never seen in New York, like avocado, tortillas, and salsa. It was all new to us. The other thing it had was ice-cold air conditioning. We had none at home. Honestly, one of my first recollections of the restaurant is stepping out of the pounding sun and broiling heat of a Valley summer and into frigid air and absolute darkness. It was such a total sensory shock, and I couldn’t see. I had to hold on to the back of my Dad’s shirt to find my way while we walked to our booth.
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The interior, then as now (when you could still go inside) is sort of Santa’s sparkly workshop in the very busy bar area meets the red leather-booth appeal of Dan Tana’s or Musso & Frank’s in the main dining rooms. The accent bits are wood; the lighting is dim. As on my very first visit, the overall feel is still, simply, dark.
Then there is the menu, changed little over the years. It is huge: There are appetizers, soups, salads, burritos, and “Especiales de la Casa.” But most of all, there are the combination plates, where you can order three single things, or two of this with one of that, or two or three of the other things. If a combo you might want isn’t there — no problem, they’ll do that, too. You have seen it all before.
Here’s the bottom line: Despite the retro quality of the place, the food is fresh, and it is tasty. The salsa is chunky and just hot enough for most people. The chips are fresh. There is a signature salad that comes with the dinners and combo plates that is a mini tostada, with some sort of French-dressing type topping that is crazy good, the whole thing crisp and refreshing. The refried beans taste exactly as you think they do, covered in a veil of gooey cheese that makes the dish the comfort food of nostalgia. Waiters tend to push the alcohol; you tend not to resist.
As most people reading this know, L.A. is now the epicenter of Latin cuisine in this country: Here you can dine at restaurants helmed by two of the most famous chefs in Mexico City; you can have a delicious burrito the size of your head while having your car washed; eat well and inexpensively at hundreds of places in mini-malls from Whittier to DTLA to the West Valley; use social media to find any number of food trucks; or you can design a food lover’s exploration of the richness of Mexico’s regional cuisines by, among other things, plumbing the columns of the late Jonathan Gold.
And yet … here we are, 60-plus years later, still writing about Casa Vega. It’s the place we used to go to on Friday nights after our football games at Grant High School. It’s the place you take the kids and grandkids, or go for a girls’ night out, a guy’s night sports recap, or to meet a friend for a giant slushy margarita at two in the afternoon. No one will look twice. It’s the place that you can occasionally spot a Kardashian.
Tick tock — my life went on, and for a lot of it, I realize now, Casa Vega was in the background. I left home after college and lived all around L.A.: Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Westchester. I landed an entry-level position at a magazine called Bon Appetit, and I stayed for more than 32 years. When my then-husband and I bought our first house, it was within easy walking distance of CV. We moved to Glendale. We got divorced. I went back “over the hill” from the Valley, first to Hollywood, then Hancock Park, and finally to a charming condo in West Hollywood within easy commuting distance of the magazine, where I had started to climb the ladder.
By 1994, I had a life partner, and he had just taken a new job in the far West Valley. His commute from WeHo was terrible. So, back to the southeast Valley “midpoint” I went, finding a great little house in Studio City, not far from where I grew up. Casa Vega is less than two miles away.
Time went on, and so did Casa Vega. It was one of the favorite Valley spots that my sisters and I took our Mom for dinner on Monday nights after our Dad passed away, introducing a lifelong Scotch drinker to the joys of reposado neat. (The Tequila selection had definitely expanded as we swung into the 21st century.)
And then came 2019 and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Naturally, if Casa Vega was good enough for Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, it was good enough for just about everybody. We headed there right after we saw the movie, of course. The marquee on top of the Casa already proclaimed, “Home of the Tarantino Margarita,” although the bartender did not seem to know what that was.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the restaurant has coped. It’s still run by the Vega family — Rafael’s daughter Christy Vega Fowler is in charge these days, and Rafael’s cousin, Rich Chavari, is the general manager. Fortunately, that corner space has a large parking lot, which can accommodate open-air tents filled with bistro-type tables and chairs. The menu is what you know it is.
Now I am, by any definition, a senior citizen. Casa Vega is still going strong, even in these challenging times, and I like to think that I am, too. It is timeless. It is enduring and endearing. It is familiar. It is comfortable. Eating there is like a warm hug. And these days that is pretty special, when a figurative hug is most often the best we can do.
Barbara Fairchild is the former editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine. In 2000, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in American Food & Beverage.