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Christy Vega on Her Mexican Background

Chef Christy Vega: "I'm Responsible For Carrying on the Accomplishment of My Father and My Grandparents"

Christy Vega is a chef and owner of Casa Vega in Burbank, CA.

My family's history in Los Angeles dates back more than 80 years, to when my grandparents and father moved to California from Tijuana, Mexico, in 1935. Before the move, my grandparents were working at the famous Agua Caliente in Tijuana — my grandfather as a bartender, and my grandmother, in the kitchen and as a hostess and coat check girl. But with prohibition's then recent repeal in the United States, and the outlawing of gambling in Mexico, business at Agua Caliente was declining, and it was time for a change.

By chance, my grandfather had a friend who was connected to Christine Sterling, the "Mother of Olvera Street," who encouraged them to move to the City of Angels and be part of the thriving downtown Hispanic community. At the same time, my grandfather's brother won $1 million dollars (around $17.3 million today) in the Irish Sweepstakes (Ireland's National Lottery) and with a generous loan, facilitated my grandparents' immigration, providing them the opportunity to open a restaurant. My grandparents agreed that this would be the next best move to ensure a better life for their family, and the perfect opportunity to fulfill their love of hospitality and food. Thus, in 1935, Café Caliente opened on historic Olvera Street. It was an instant hit.

After experiencing several years of smashing success at Café Caliente, my grandparents heard rumors that liquor was going to be banned at Olvera Street when it became a public historical park. Taking caution, my grandfather preemptively moved the restaurant to Hollywood and Vine, which proved to be a huge mistake. The restaurant struggled, and eventually had to close. My father, who had just graduated college from San Francisco State, majoring in Hospitality, dropped his plans to go to law school in order to help his parents get back on their feet.

Without Café Caliente to support the family, my dad worked three jobs to make ends meet: at a gas station, selling life insurance, and at a catering company in the evenings. While selling life insurance, he met a woman who knew our family from Olvera Street, and also happened to be the landlord of a building located at Ventura Boulevard and Mary Ellen Avenue in Sherman Oaks. She insisted the family open a Mexican restaurant in the Valley, on her corner, offering my family a second chance after Café Caliente. Even though my father was only in his early twenties at the time, he quickly agreed. He had grown up in Burbank, and always considered the Valley the Vega family's "home away from home."

My family's recipes were brought over from Café Caliente, and like history repeating itself, Casa Vega opened with my grandfather as the first bartender, and my grandmother as the first hostess. We eventually had to move the restaurant down the street because we needed a bigger space to accommodate our guests! We had so much support from the community, as well as the entertainment industry (regulars included Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Jane Fonda, and many more) and continue to feel their support 60 years later.

Now, as the second generation owner of Casa Vega, I'm responsible for carrying on the accomplishment, determination, and passion of my father and my grandparents before him. To me, Casa Vega represents the spirit of my father, and I take pride and love in taking care of this family restaurant. I absolutely foresee Casa Vega, hopefully, continuing for generations. I have plans to extend the Casa Vega legacy by passing the restaurant down to my four boys, as well as opening new locations throughout the city. I hope everyone can have a piece of Casa Vega in their hearts and in their home, whether that be with our housemade margarita mixes, or just a fond memory.

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