The Los Angeles Restaurant That Sold Hollywood on Mexican Food

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.

Casa Vega’s classic margarita, among more than a dozen varieties on offer, including mango, grilled pineapple and the Taratino.Credit…Stephanie Noritz
An assortment of Casa Vega’s dishes, including shrimp ceviche (served in a coconut shell), pollo en mole and a chile relleno burrito.Credit…Stephanie Noritz

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.

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