02-08-24

32 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY february 8-14, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com Elijah Vasquez smiles wistfully recalling his father’s last day at the family restaurant: “He was just observing the outside, the inside, the kitchen—just staring.” Luis Vasquez had opened La Tortuga in 1999 on Broadway Avenue in Seaside before moving into its current space on Fremont. The restaurant known for its tortas and Oaxacan plates quickly became a favorite. Luis, who did not finish middle school in Mexico but worked his way from dishwasher to head chef after coming to Monterey County, became a recognized figure in the community for his cooking and for his generosity. In the summer of 2023, liver cancer tore quickly through Luis’ body. He died on Oct. 5, 2023, leaving his son with a family restaurant and a legacy of hard work and accomplishment. “Everyone used to tell me I have big shoes to fill,” Elijah points out. “Yes, I know.” Since he was young, Elijah would watch his father work—long hours, but he always had a ready smile for customers. When old enough, Elijah joined the crew as a server, taking whatever time he could to pick up tips on the ins and outs of a professional restaurant, of running a small business. Taking over—actually, Elijah uses the phrase “looking after”—the place his father brought into existence and guided to success is admittedly daunting. “My dad told me you’re never going to stop learning in this business,” he says. “I want to make him proud.” Luis was born in the state of Oaxaca in 1964. By the age of 10 he began baking and not long after he left school to work. He came to the U.S. around age 20, toiling in various Peninsula restaurants. Eventually he became chef at Fifi’s Cafe, a popular French kitchen in Pacific Grove. Despite not finishing his schooling in Mexico, Luis stressed the importance of education to his family. “My dad always told me to finish school, to study,” Elijah says. The young Vasquez graduated from Seaside High School and took business courses at Monterey Peninsula College. Meanwhile Luis completed a GED at MPC in 1999, the same year he opened La Tortuga. Elijah believes that his father was haunted by quitting his studies. Some of the friends he grew up with in Mexico had become healthcare practitioners or made their way in other professions. “I told him, ‘Dad, you’re a business owner. You did amazing work,’” Elijah recalls. Growing up, the young Vasquez was impressed by the crowds and the diversity of people dining at La Tortuga. “The mayor would visit the restaurant—man, the mayor! I told [my dad], ‘Hopefully someday I can be like you.’” But it wasn’t always easy for either of them. Luis opened additional restaurants in other cities. The hours he worked grew longer. Elijah’s mother started helping in the Seaside location, and he admits that the absence of his father sometimes gnawed at him. Eventually, however, Luis sold the other operations to concentrate on his original location, and his family. On days off he would cook—for his family, but also for the kids in the neighborhood, who would gather when they learned the chef was at home. “Man, his desserts,” Elijah says with a smile. “Being older, I’m grateful for all his hard work,” he adds. “We have a good foundation.” Of course, the loss of his father at the age of 59 still hurts. While Elijah acknowledges that it’s even harder on his mother, he also has moments. “Why my dad? He helped so many people,” he says, his eyes tilting toward the sky. “I still believe it’s a dream. But it’s not. It’s reality.” Yet the lessons Luis passed down continue to resonate, and the lessons are many: work with passion; remain humble; provide for the hungry; give back to the community. “Everything I know is from him,” Elijah says. “They were beautiful moments, when we were together working. I have to do it for my dad.” He’s taking in the lessons that small businesses teach every day. He intends to keep the restaurant in the family and is considering a second location. “It’s the most important thing right now, remembering his sacrifices,” Elijah says. “I just wish I had more one-on-one classes with him.” La Tortuga is at 1257 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. 899-8429, latortugaseaside.com. First course Elijah Vasquez, with his mother Virginia, holds a photograph of his father Luis, who opened La Tortuga in Seaside. Luis Vasquez died in October of 2023. Lodge With Love…Quail Lodge hosts a special three-course, prix-fixe dinner on Wednesday, Feb. 14 for Valentine’s Day. Guests will start with a smoked salmon roe amuse bouche, then can select their preferred dish for the following three courses—a citrus salad, carrot soup or scallops for the first course; beef Wellington, Petaluma chicken roulade or Maine lobster for the second; and Paris-brest or mille feuille for dessert. $98 per person. 8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel Valley. (866) 6751101, quaillodge.com/dining. Battle Of The Bartenders… Carmel’s best bartenders are going head-to-head in Links Club’s Battle of the Bartenders. For eight weeks, seven bartenders from local establishments will showcase their mixology skills. The preliminary rounds are every Monday through February, with semi-finals on March 8 and 14, with the championship on April 1. You can have a front-row seat to the action. Purchase tickets to each event for $35. Carmel Plaza, Ocean Avenue and Mission Street, Carmel. 250-7816, linksclubgolf.com. Love Potions…The Yolk Marketplace is teaming up with Acme Coffee Roasters to bring you a couple of incredible coffee potions. Infuse your favorite coffee beverages with these elixirs, made with high-quality extracts and rosewater, for added flavor. Head to Acme to fall in love with the goodness yourself at their unveiling event on Wednesday, Feb. 14 from 9am-1pm. 485B Palm Ave., Seaside. 393-9113, acmecoffeeroasting.com; theyolkmarketplace.com. It’s Super…The Oven Pizzeria is celebrating the big game with a couple of super seasonal pizzas. Backing the Niners? The pizza of choice features rainbow chard, onion, tomato and lemon zest on sourdough. Joining with the Swifties? The Kansas City pie has barbecue chicken, bacon, roasted red pepper and more on a thick crust. 720 Broadway Ave., Seaside. 899-1762. Kissing Booth…Here’s a mix of delightful things—California Seltzer Co. hosts Animal Friends Rescue Project’s kissing booth event on Sunday, Feb. 11 (noon-2pm). Get smooches from some adorable—and adoptable—kitties and pups while shopping for Valentine’s gifts from local vendors, sipping seltzer, and eating. 631 Ocean View Blvd., Pacific Grove. 717-3827, californiaseltzerco. com/lovers-point. By Jacqueline Weixel morsels Send a bite to eatanddrink@mcweekly.com “I want to make him proud.” Eat + DrinK Daniel Dreifuss Shell Star For Elijah Vasquez, looking after his father’s legacy at La Tortuga is something he takes seriously. By Dave Faries

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