SHERMAN OAKS >> The two cockroaches that had scurried from beneath a broken water pipe at Casa Vega and under the eyes of county public health inspectors were but a gift from God.
So says the owner of the historic Mexican restaurant of the stars in Sherman Oaks. After a brief pause to kill the bugs before Cinco de Mayo, Casa Vega closed its doors this week for only the second time in 61 years to expedite a major kitchen and dining room makeover.
“We had two bugs come out, and the county closed us down,” said Christy Vega Fowler, 39, seated Thursday before the smiling gaze of her father Rafael “Ray” Vega, the genial founder of the landmark watering hole and restaurant, from his portrait in a stucco office building out back. “I took it as a sign from God.
“Because in 61 years, we’ve never had this happen. So we thought, Why wait? Let’s just fix it — make sure everything is perfect. And show the community how much we believe in our business and cherish our customers.”
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The popular Mexican restaurant at 13301 Ventura Blvd. was initially closed May 2 by the Los Angeles County Public Health Department because of a cockroach infestation.
Fowler attributed the infestation to the busted pipe in a freezer room far from the restaurant kitchen, and said it was thoroughly debugged in time for a Cinco de Mayo celebration attended by Kim Kardashian in a pair of jeans.
But then the restaurateur, who had hoped to launch a $250,000 renovation by Labor Day, decided to push the work ahead of Memorial Day instead.
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Casa Vega closed on Monday and was scheduled to reopen on Wednesday for a celebratory event.
Since it had become an instant celebrity magnet for the likes of Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz after it opened in 1956, Casa Vega had only voluntarily shut its doors once — the day of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
But unlike many restaurants, it opened the next day to serve up comfort to the many emerging from the rubble.
“We’re dying,” Fowler said of the nine-day closure. “It’s a big hit for us, to close down. It’s a big financial investment. It’s been 61 years. It’s about time.
“It’ll be the same – just a little better.”
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Gone will be the kitchen equipment that has cranked out classic chicken enchiladas with rice and beans to generations of Valley families and stars.
Gone will be some of the bar equipment that has fortified tipplers with as many as 10 different kinds of margaritas.
And gone will be the carpet that, if you could see across it in the famous Casa Vega bustle, welcomed such regulars as Charlize Theron, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston and Anthony Hopkins.
Its cozy embrace has for years enticed famous A-listers from Al Pacino to George Clooney, who sometimes enter from a side door. The late Michael Jackson was a huge Casa Vega fan.
What will not change, Fowler said, will be the wrap-around red leather booths, hardwood bar, the vintage Casa Vega paneling. The white-colored restaurant with the signature red Casa Vega script aimed at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Fulton Avenue. The “CV” topiary. The classic neon.
And the food. Especially the famous Casa Vega food.
“The food, it’ll be even better,” declared Eddie Vega, a member of the wait staff and no relation to the founding family, on Thursday assisting with the renovation. “Instead of licking just one finger, you’ll be able to lick all five.”
One passer-by was concerned about having to wait a week for its famous drinks.
“They need it,” said Fereshteh Aledavood, a beautician who works at the eSalon next door. “After 61 years, they need a remodel. I won’t miss the food. But I’ll miss the drinks; I love their margaritas.”
It was in the summer or fall of 1956, a few years before the 101 Freeway cut a path along the El Camino Real nearby, that Rafael Vega opened his Casa Vega on Ventura Boulevard. He was 22.
His parents, natives of Tijuana, Mexico, had opened Casa Caliente on Olvera Street – bankrolled at the dawn of the Depression in the 1930s by an uncle who’d won $1 million in the Irish Sweepstakes. After 18 years, they went to work for Ray in Sherman Oaks.
The dapper Vega, who greeted everyone for decades at his restaurant, handed the master ladle in 2009 to his daughter Christy.
“You know, Cary Grant, back when Dyan Cannon was pregnant, I was working the door,” Vega told the Daily News in 2006, on the 50th anniversary of Casa Vega. “I said to him, ‘Mr. Grant, I really appreciate your business, but this is the fifth time this week you’ve been in here.’
“He tells me, ‘I don’t really care for Mexican food, but when she’s eating the food here, Dyan isn’t such a pain in the … neck.’”
His daughter said she looks forward to reopening her Sherman Oaks landmark next week, with specials for “preferred loyal customers — or everybody.”
“It’s a joyous occasion, a very joyous occasion,” Fowler said. “We are excited for this. And we hope the public is excited. It’s a very positive thing.”