It was more than 20 years ago when Raul and Maria Gil opened the original Casa Don Juan on Main Street, and it hardly resembled the Frida Kahlo-adorned restaurant locals know and love today.
But before they moved to Las Vegas for a fresh start, the Gils owned a catering truck in California. Their son, Billy Gil (now manager of Casa Don Juan), describes the restaurant’s Vegas beginnings as a humble hole in the wall. The Downtown location was half the size it is today.
A second restaurant near Summerlin has been going strong since 2015, and the Gil family just opened a third Casa Don Juan in Henderson in August. But the real change has yet to happen, Billy Gil says. Downtown’s Casa Don Juan is about to undergo a heavy remodel, adding more than 10,000 square feet and a second story to the already large building. “It’s one of the biggest projects we’ve got planned right now,” he says. Construction is set to begin in late 2017 or early 2018, but the restaurant will remain open throughout—so you can still get your carnitas or shrimp taco fix.
The expansion is all part of Maria’s dream, the one she first had more than two decades ago. “My mom told my dad she wanted a Mexican restaurant, and my dad was like, ‘Okay, I can make that happen,’” Billy says. “And then afterward she was like, ‘I don’t want just one Mexican restaurant. I want a chain of restaurants.’”
The recipes, like the mojarra al mojo de ajo or tilapia in garlic sauce, evolved over time as Raul and his original chefs—some of whom are still there—experimented with different ingredients. But it’s Maria who can take credit for the Frida theme, which is almost as iconic as the food. “She’s just astonished by [Kahlo’s] accomplishments and how she carried herself as a person, how she expressed herself and the culture of Mexico,” Billy says. “She just adores her.”