When I was a college student in San Diego, I would drive up to the San Fernando Valley about once a month to hang out with a friend from high school. He was attending Cal State Northridge and had an apartment on Reseda Boulevard near the campus where I would crash on the floor. We always had a great time together, but our desires were a bit different. He couldn’t wait to take me around West Hollywood and Santa Monica, while I was much more interested in his local neighborhood and the area surrounding it. Living in La Jolla, all we had were boring chain restaurants and upscale dining—not places the average 20 year old student enjoys frequenting. Yet, I was utterly entranced by Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, and the various other villages across the valley, with their endless strip malls, peppered with oddball, hole-in-the-wall shops and kooky dive bars. Restaurants that served falafel, tacos, and Chinese food all in one place. Cocktail lounges that looked like they hadn’t changed a bit since 1971. It was pure nostalgia, and I was always stoked from the moment I hit the Nordhoff exit.
Having spent little time in the valley since then, I was almost in tears during a recent visit, overwhelmed that little has changed during the last eighteen years. The atmosphere and the vibe was exactly as I remembered it, the eclectic streets still the same. The collapse of local economies, along with urban gentrification, has changed much of the California that I knew and loved growing up. My home town of Modesto, as an example, has turned in to little more than abandoned storefronts sandwiched between Starbucks and T-Mobile outposts. Meanwhile, the old school restaurants and bars that made San Francisco’s Mission District a hotspot for decades have all been replaced by modern upscale dining and high-end coffee houses. Places like Casa Vega, a 62 year old, low-lit Mexican restaurant and lounge on Ventura Boulevard, are just memories at this point. But the dream of the pre-internet age is still alive in the San Fernando Valley. Thank God!!
Down visiting on some personal business recently, I ate at Casa Vega twice in two days because of how momentous the feeling was to eat and drink in such a sentimental setting. The food is fantastic and the drinks are cold, frozen, and full of booze. I had a chicken tostada the first time, and the ground beef Sonoran style tacos the second—both worth revisiting the next time around. The best part about Casa Vega, however, is the people. We ended up chatting with a delightful retired couple in their seventies, both of them pounding Margaritas before noon on a Saturday. “My dream is your life,” I said to them, in all earnestness. At dinner the following night, we sat between a young family and another old couple that screamed old Hollywood. No one was talking about software or business. Everyone was having a blast.
The San Fernando Valley feels very much like home to me. It’s a place I could easily imagine buying a condo, setting down new roots, and getting back to what I do best.