Christy Vega, owner of legendary Valley restaurant Casa Vega, is one of the six special winners of the 2022 James Beard Foundation's America’s Classics Award. Taking over the restaurant after her father passed in 2021, Vega has continued to spearhead a culinary establishment that is by and for the community. As Casa Vega celebrates 66 years, we spoke with Vega all about the beloved Mexican restaurant.
How does it feel to be among the 2022 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award winners?
To be honored as a James Beard "American Classic" means everything to me; I am elated. I poured myself into saving the restaurant during the pandemic and lost my father, Casa Vega’s founder, due to COVID-19 in the process. So to me, I feel like I have made my Dad proud. I know he is celebrating with us from above.
From the menu to the ambience to the history, what is your favorite thing about Casa Vega?
My favorite thing about Casa Vega is the vibe. When you walk in the doors of CV it feels like a big, cozy hug. The old-school red leather booths, dim lighting, staff that has been around for decades, comforting food, the best margaritas in town and an overall festive atmosphere.
Why are family-run restaurants vital to the industry?
Family-run restaurants are so special in the restaurant industry. There are very, very few of us remaining. Most restaurants are by restaurant groups, equity groups and big investors. Family-run restaurants are also often immigrant restaurants.. like Mexican, Thai and so many others. Restaurants are one of the few remaining paths for immigrant "American Dreams."
What does it elevate the dining experience?
Nothing makes someone care for their restaurant like having your name on the side of the building. No one cares as much for their restaurants as much as the family behind it. It's not just "work" or a business to us, it is a representation of our family and legacy.
You work in a tough industry that sees a lot of turnover and closures, especially in the last few years. What’s Casa Vega’s secret to keeping its doors open?
The secret to Casa Vega keeping doors open is simply hospitality. My father oozed hospitality and created a restaurant that does the same. It's all about how a restaurant makes you FEEL. You can have the best chef in the world, but if your experience was cold or sterile you most likely won't go back. Our tables remain packed every night because we make people feel good. Our goal for your Casa Vega experience is to have you leave a little happier than when you came in.
Casa Vega has been part of your entire life. What is your best piece of business advice you can give to new restaurant owners?
My advice to new restaurant owners is to lead by example versus force. I push myself to work harder than my employees. I throw myself into lower tasks during service. You'll often find me scraping plates for the dishwasher. Your staff must see you work hard, the restaurant needs your presence and you must instill everything is everyone's job– starting with the owner. Also, never give up. People who succeed are only those that didn't take the temptation to give up.
What was the best lesson you learned from your father?
The best lesson my father taught me was the importance of understanding business. I wanted to go to culinary school, but my dad said no and told me I needed to go to business school. He often told me "if you don't know how to keep your doors open and your bills paid, you won't have any place to cook in." Today I am beyond grateful for my business background and that my father insisted.
Casa Vega supports organizations like No Us Without You. Why is it important for restaurants to support the local community?
The backbone of all restaurants across the nation is the back-of-the-house kitchen workers– the dishwashers, prep cooks, cleaners and all the cooks. They do the most difficult jobs most people don’t want to do. The unfortunate fact is that many of these people are undocumented. These workers were left with zero government assistance during COVID-19, so while everyone else got unemployment and stimulus checks, many FOH & BOH workers were left to starve. No Us Without You came to their rescue. They remembered the invisible people no one wants to think about and those that politicians treated as disposable. So many of these workers are mostly Latino; Casa Vega does everything to help this cause (No Us Without You) because we remember our roots. We are a proud immigrant family that takes pride in helping the Latino community of Los Angeles.
Do you have a go-to order at Casa Vega?
My go-to order at Casa Vega is the Polle en Mole with a margarita (or two!). The mole was my dad's favorite thing on the menu, so it's comforting to me. I love our margaritas… classic, cucumber, coconut, the Tarantino... they’re all so good.
Why do you think Carey Grant loved Casa Vega's margaritas so much? What makes them so great?
Carey Grant was notorious for loving our Casa Vega Margaritas. They were created by my grandfather in the 1930s at our first family Mexican restaurant, Cafe Caliente, in DTLA on Olvera St. We still serve that same margarita today. Our margaritas have the perfect balance of tartness and sweetness, and they are known for being strong. Carey would talk my Dad into sneaking some out the back door and was infamous for bringing in crowds into Casa Vega to try our margaritas.
Is there anything else important to know that you would like to add?
Vega women have always been at the heart and soul of our restaurant legacy. My grandparents opened the first Mexican cafe on Olvera Street in the 1930s when my dad was a baby. My grandmother was an immigrant who blew over the border with a zest for life. While my grandfather handled the bar, my grandmother trained the cooks in the day, greeted the guests at night and managed the floor. She would also entertain the customers on the weekend dancing with a full band in traditional Mexican attire. She loved to work hard and live life to the fullest.
Photography by: Courtesy Christy Vega