There's a sign that hangs among the assortment of authentic Mexican decorations at the Casa Valadez restaurant in Altoona that reads, "The best place to be is together."
It's a mantra fitting for both the restaurant and the family that runs it. The Valadez's - consisting of parents Margarita and Gustavo and children Yadira, 21; Edgar, 19; and Isaias, 13 - moved to Altoona from outside of Los Angeles in 2005 to work in the restaurant when it was El Campesino. But one day last March, everything changed when Margarita and Gustavo were let go as managers.
"It was always supposed to be family. But the way I saw it is, it left room for an opportunity," Edgar said, adding that he and Yadira were still given the option to stay after working as servers.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
The family-run Casa Valadez includes: Isaias Valadez (foreground) and (from left) Kaileigh Peters, Edgar Valadez, Margarita Valadez, Gustavo Valadez, Matthew Lingenfelter and Yadira Valadez.
That opportunity was to not only stick together as a family, but open their own authentic Mexican restaurant. Casa Valadez had its grand opening on July 25, 2011, with a menu that incorporates as many home-style recipes as possible - what Margarita and Gustavo ate on their respective ranches in central Mexico and what the kids remember eating when they used to visit.
"When most people go out to eat Mexican food, they're used to the Tex-Mex and something that's so Americanized," Edgar said. "But when they come here, we explain the platters and show them that everything is just the way we had it growing up. We put a better spin on it, and everybody loves it."
Everything from the sauces for each dish to the desserts are Valadez family recipes. Other specialties include a breakfast menu served all day, a variety of bottled Mexican sodas and, of course, margaritas made with fresh fruit and offered in flavors like peach, strawberry and mango-coconut. The largest size weighs in at 48 ounces.
Behind the Plates
Address: 101 Park Hills Plaza, Altoona
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Price range: $2.95-$17.95
Specialties: Seafood dishes, Cali burritos, street-style tacos, family recipe soups and desserts
Seating capacity: 275
Reservations: Not necessary, but call to reserve a room for parties
Despite the fact that everything gets a homemade touch, Casa Valadez still boasts a lengthy menu with dishes from all different parts of Mexico. Whether you're in the mood for fajitas, a burrito or street-style tacos, or are up for trying a special like their Menudo (tripe soup) or Pozole (tender meat stew served on Sundays), Casa Valadez has it all.
"It's funny because the workers from the other [Mexican] restaurants come here on their day off," Yadira said. "We offer dishes here that they don't, that are more comfort food."
That's why patrons like Robin Daus, 49, of Altoona, also stop by once or twice a week. A self-proclaimed picky eater, Daus said the Valadez's have helped her expand her palette by taking the time to explain the menu and help her pick out things she might like.
"Yadira has never steered me wrong," Daus said.
Her favorite dishes include the Veggie Taco Salad, Texas Enchiladas and street-style chicken tacos, and Daus said she'd recommend Casa Valadez's food to just about anyone.
"If you're going to eat Mexican food, why not go real?" she said. "I've been to other Mexican places in town, and there's just not a comparison in my book."
Bessie Walter, 63, of Claysburg, said she and her husband, Noel, eat at Casa Valadez at least once a week because of the great food and the friendly atmosphere.
"We really like the family," she said. "They're very friendly and extremely nice people who work really hard trying to keep the restaurant going. ...We've never had bad food, and we've had almost everything on the menu."
After a heart attack last Christmas, Walter had to stop eating many of the foods available at Casa Valadez. But when she comes in, Walter said that Margarita will go into the kitchen herself and make a special dish with ingredients that are safe for her to eat - a testament to the "personable" way the family runs the restaurant, Walter added.
"They want to make sure everything is good, and they're willing to change things," she said. "They're very accommodating."
Edgar said that instead of allowing their restaurant to have that in-and-out feel, they'd rather make people feel more like guests than customers when they come to Casa Valadez. Some of the homemade dishes take a little longer to make, so the Valadez's invite every guest to sit down and stay a while.
"It's important that people feel like family," Edgar said.
This is why there's another sign that hangs right inside the door to Casa Valadez. It reads, "Our casa is your casa." And whether it's their immediate family or the adopted family of their regular customers, the Valadez's are happy to provide a place that brings everyone together.
"Even though it's hard, the restaurant business is so hard, it kind of helps that we work in a family because we can find strength within each other," Yadira said.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520