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Patrons, staff at Costa Mesa’s Mi Casa clink glasses at 50th anniversary, Cinco de Mayo

Bartender Juan Alvarez makes a margarita in the bar at Mi Casa on May 5, the restaurant's 50th anniversary.
Bartender Juan Alvarez makes a margarita Thursday in the Burro Room Bar inside the Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa. The business has run for 50 years and three generations in the hands of a local family.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Legions of hungry patrons and the staff at Costa Mesa’s Mi Casa Mexican restaurant had two reasons to clink margarita glasses Thursday, as Cinco de Mayo coincided with a celebration of the family-owned establishment’s 50th anniversary.

Opened in May 1972 by drive-through taco pioneer Barrie Moore in a shopping plaza storefront on 17th Street previously occupied by a Sizzler steakhouse, the business is still serving up helpings of fan favorites, including Mi Casa’s signature crispy tacos.

The magical combination of fried tortilla, shredded beef and a liberal application of cheese was enough to entice siblings Cathy and Ron Britvich to make the trip while visiting from Placerville.

Server Mariela Valladares brings out dishes Thursday during a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Mi Casa Mexican restaurant.
Server Mariela Valladares brings out dishes Thursday during a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Mi Casa Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The duo grew up on the Balboa Peninsula — where a second location operated from 1976 to 1984 — and used to be regulars, so just had to make a pit stop while they were in town.

“This place is great,” Cathy Britvich said. “First of all, they have the best Long Island iced teas. I challenge you to find a better one. And I love their rice and beans.”

“I came here for one thing, I call them greasy tacos,” Ron Britvich said of the restaurant’s crispy concoction. “They have shredded beef, and they’re gigantic.”

Decorations hang in the lobby at Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa.
Festive decorations hang in the lobby at Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Back in Mi Casa’s Burro Room bar, Newport Beach residents Val and Mark, who asked that their surnames be withheld, were celebrating a special anniversary of their own.

“We started coming here 29 years ago today, on a first date,” said Val. “We fell in love over margaritas and nachos — we’ve been coming ever since.”

“The only reason I got a second date was because I had laryngitis,” Mark joked.

“I thought he was a good listener,” his wife laughed.

A mini birdhouse replica of the restaurant sits in a display case at Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa.
A mini birdhouse replica sits in a display case at Mi Casa restaurant, one of several heirlooms amassed in the establishment’s 50-year history.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Married for 27 years, the couple have celebrated birthdays and anniversaries in the company of waitstaff and bartenders who’ve been at Mi Casa for decades.

Not too much has changed since Mi Casa’s early days. The same wagon-wheel chandeliers, booths and cattle-brand tabletops, leftovers from the Sizzler era, still greet guests.

Many of the recipes brought by former head chef Jose Perez, who recreated dishes from his mother and grandmother’s kitchens from the restaurant’s opening until his retirement in 2004, continue to grace the menu.

Barrie Moore, seen in an undated photo, opened the first Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa in 1972.
Barrie Moore, seen in an undated photo, opened the first Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa in 1972.
(Courtesy of Ryan Moore)

Moore opened Tio’s Tacos, reportedly the first “taco drive-in” in the Los Angeles area, in 1956 and achieved the same milestone in Orange County when he opened a second location in Santa Ana the following year.

But it was the Mi Casa restaurants that drew a long-lasting clientele. In 1986, would-be President George Herbert Walker Bush stopped by for a taco, chili relleno and enchilada combo dinner. Other luminaries who dined there were John Wayne, Barry Goldwater, Desi Arnaz, Barbra Streisand, skateboard legend Tony Hawk and many others.

Upon Moore’s passing in 2003, sons Rick and Dennis assumed operations and managed affairs until 2010, when Rick’s son, Ryan Moore, took over.

Rick and Lee Moore, from left with sons Ryan, Andy and relative Jamie Jacobs at Mi Casa in the early 1980s.
Rick and Lee Moore, from left with sons Ryan, Andy and relative Jamie Jacobs at Mi Casa in the early 1980s.
(Courtesy of Ryan Moore)

Today, the third-generation restaurateur runs the business with partner and general manager Ryan Allen. Living in Arizona, he makes frequent trips to the place he describes as a second home.

“I took my first steps in the restaurant in Costa Mesa,” Ryan Moore, 47, said in a phone interview Thursday. “We would go to prom dinner there because we wouldn’t have to pay.

“There’s obviously very much a family vibe, and since I brought on my business partner six years ago, we’ve tried to keep that vibe.”

General Manager Ryan Allen and manager Starlett Clark pause during a break Thursday at Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa.
General Manager Ryan Allen and manager Starlett Clark pause during a break Thursday at Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The pair have added items, including fish and shrimp tacos and enchiladas and lighter-option salads and side dishes. But the old standards and the friendly atmosphere remain the same.

Manager Starlett Clark, who started as a bartender 28 years ago, said the place is like family to her. It must be the same for the customers, she reckons.

“I think it’s the good food and the good service and word of mouth,” she said of Mi Casa’s success. “It’s generational — people tell me all the time they used to come here with their kids and now they come in with their grandkids.”

Ryan Moore said he’s happy to continue the family tradition.

Chuy Pedrosa prepares a large table in the dining room of the Mi Casa restaurant in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“My grandfather was a very loud, in your face kind of man but in a good way. He knew all the customers’ names, and I think that really helped establish the restaurant,” he said. “That and the consistency of the place — if you happened to move away from Southern California, you can still come back, and everything tastes the same.”

That’s a good thing for Ron Brtivich, who walked out Thursday with an extra crispy taco in a to-go box.

“We’ll see you in 50 years for your 100th,” he called out as he left.

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