For years, critics and foodie types have bemoaned “a lack of good Mexican food” in Vegas. It required the creativity of big-time chefs at Strip restaurants to upgrade our poor cuisine, they say. There certainly is something to be said for the contributions of the Rick Baylesses of the world, represented here by the likes of Richard Sandoval and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. And yet I must respectfully dissent from popular opinion, having eaten for years, like so many locals, at places like Ricardo’s, Lindo Michoacan and Frank & Fina’s Cocina, enjoying meals that, while not the most imaginative, were definitely satisfying.
For those of us living in the American Southwest, hearty, well-spiced Mexican-American classics are our soul food, more familiar even than the cuisine of the American South. And it’s difficult to screw up Mexican food completely; thus we love our family restaurants and taquerias, for to crunch away at a greasy Roberto’s taco is surely a joy.
Vega’s Cafe has the history and consistency to be grouped with these beloved local restaurants. There’s nothing extraordinary about the menu—the most exotic dish is chilaquiles, served at Saturday-morning breakfast. But everything is prepared well and with loving care. Family-friendly is one thing, but eating at Vega’s is like having dinner at your favorite tia’s or abuela’s house. Chile verde, plenty hot with the crisp of fresh vegetables in place of soft-stewed peppers and onions, is made with tender chicken or beef instead of pork because, hey, Celia Calderon doesn’t make pork at home, so she doesn’t make it for you, either. What she does make: fresh, chewy tortillas every day, perfect with some of this verde or the fiery red chile carne. She has her own take on chile rellenos, too, very lightly battering a cheese-stuffed pasilla and splashing on a smooth white sauce with diced tomatoes and onions.
- 7280 Azure Drive, Suite 150, 648-0848.
- Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
- Suggested dishes: Chile relleno & tortilla, $14.95; carne con chile, $14.95; Tacos de Papa, $7.75.
The corn chips that start your meal are standard, but the house salsa is a familiar delight, spicy and chunky and difficult to lay off of. Celia’s husband, Ernie Calderon, claims they were the first to serve fish tacos in Vegas, and the current incarnation puts your Rubio’s lunch to shame. For the true gringo, there’s a burger with green chili strips and grilled onions.
The Calderons have been doing this since 1978. Their culinary career started even before that in San Diego, where Ernie sold Celia’s burritos to his fellow Navy men. Their first Las Vegas operation, also using Celia’s maiden name, was a tiny joint on the corner of Charleston and Arville, and supplied hotel buffets with tortillas and enchiladas. They got bigger, moved around a little and thought they retired ... until their son convinced them to start again in Northwest Las Vegas a couple of years ago. They revived the Vega’s name so their regulars could find them. They have.
And contrary to that popular opinion, they don’t come back just because it reminds them of the good old days or because Ernie’s a nice guy. They come back because the food, however simple, is soothing and soulful.