Family owned and operated for 23 years, La Fiesta Brava tries to stand its ground against being priced out of Venice
By Christianna Reinhardt (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jasmin Camarena sits across from me in one of the booths at La Fiesta Brava, her family’s Mexican restaurant on Rose Avenue in Venice. We are each the eldest daughter in our families, and while we trade big sister stories, her new role in the family is one I’m having trouble relating to.
Camarena, 26, has become
the spokesperson and public face for the family and La Fiesta Brava as it fights eviction due to rising property values and rents in Venice.
At the beginning of October, an impending eviction notice was served on La Fiesta Brava as the landlord seeks to convert the building into a larger-scale restaurant.
Some call the move a “realization of market value.”
Members of the community call it a play out of the gentrification book.
Since being opened by Camarena’s mother and father almost 23 years ago, La Fiesta Brava has operated as an entirely family affair.
“I remember being in third or fourth grade and wanted to be with my dad after school. I would clean tables and help in back,” Camarena says. “My aunt met her husband while she was working here. They now have four children.”
To get to La Fiesta Brava, I rode my bicycle down Rose Avenue (it’s too much of a hassle to find parking for cars nowadays) and passed as many yoga gear-clad women as I did homeless-looking men on my way. Caught somewhere in the middle are the longtime establishments — and their working- and middle-class customers.
“We have customers coming in saying they’ve just been evicted and are living out of their cars. We’re one of the last affordable places for them to eat,” Camarena tells me.
Plates cost around $10 here ($6.95 for burritos to $13.95 for mixed-meat fajitas), and almost everything on them is made in-house. Every day, cooks fry the tortilla chips that come to the table, and all the salsas are made from scratch. They have one dessert: homemade flan (a creamy vanilla custard).
“We are very proud of our food, so we keep the menu small and don’t change it very often,” Camarena explains. “That helps us make sure we are serving great food. We stick to what we know.”
The family specializes in Jalisco-style Mexican food — a broad, regional term often typified by “wet” (sauce-covered) burritos and meats that are simmered rather than served seca, or dry and crispy.
The roasted pork burrito (Carnitas Estilo Tepatitlan) is covered in homemade green chile salsa and filled to small football size with rice, homemade pinto beans and slow-roasted, tender pork.
Despite being thrust into the spotlight over the looming closure of La Fiesta Brava, Camarena laughs as she tries to keep something secret about the Steak Picardo, a chopped steak plate marinated in “secret” ranchero sauce and then grilled with peppers and onions. Think of it as a “wet” fajitas plate, the meat served in its sauce with rice, corn or flour tortillas, and homemade smashed pinto beans on the side.
Mexican Cokes (the ones still made with real sugar and bottled in glass) and Jarritos, a Mexican brand of flavored sodas, are served from a refrigerated case surrounded by posters and velvet paintings depicting the restaurant’s namesake: bullfighting.
The family lost Samuel, its patriarch and the founder of the restaurant, in a tragic car accident five years ago. Since then, Camarena’s mother took the reins along with the children, who all pitch in to help keep the restaurant alive and thriving. Believing they had a good relationship with the landlord, the family continued operating on a month-to-month lease for years, leaving them without lease-holding protection.
“This restaurant is one of the last memories we have of our father. People still come in and tell stories about him, and to lose that is heartbreaking for us,” Camarena says.
Most of the customers are regulars, and while Camarena knows they are sincere when helping with ideas about relocating and calls to report spaces for rent nearby, she is well aware of the changing landscape in Venice: “You need money to make money, you know? Especially here,” she observes.
“People saw me grow up here. They saw me before I could carry a plate. And I saw them grow up too. They became teenagers, started dating, got married and had kids in front of me. The community is one of the things I have always loved about Venice,” she says.
As for how much time they have left in this location, it’s hard to say with a permit change related to the eviction notice stuck in an appeals process.
“As much time here as we can get,” Camarena says, “we’ll take.”
Find a Save La Fiesta Brava discussion group at facebook.com/savelafiestabrava.
La Fiesta Brava 423 Rose Ave., Venice (310) 399-8005 lafiestabravademo.com