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Viva Las Vegas Café: A Tradition of Love, Community, and Enchiladas

(This article was written by Beth Marie Cantu and was featured in the April 2024 issue of Explore Harlingen Magazine.)


Established in 1964 by the pioneering spirit of Mrs. Eloina Charles, Las Vegas Café has been synonymous with warmth, flavor, and community for six decades. Owned and cherished by sisters Lori Davila and Julie Charles, Las Vegas Café is more than just a restaurant; it embodies the essence of great food, tradition, and the power of family.


Las Vegas Cafe with an award they received. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Cafe.

Eloina Charles, armed with little more than her own pots, pans, and $350, transformed a modest space within Lucky's Lounge into the humble beginnings of Las Vegas Café. “She was a woman [with her own business] in 1964. That was rare,” states Lori.

 

“She had other hurdles to overcome,” adds Julie. “Like the language barrier.” Yet, against all odds, Eloina Charles laid the foundation for what would become and remain a beloved establishment in the community of Harlingen.

 

In its humble beginnings, Las Vegas Café boasted only three tables, prompting diners to share meals and stories with strangers who quickly evolved into lifelong friends. This tradition of forging connections over food remains at the heart of Las Vegas Café’s charm. Nestled within its walls is an ambiance that cannot be replicated by any other cafe, with a unique warmth and hospitality found nowhere else. With each visit, patrons are welcomed with genuine smiles and a friendly demeanor, drawing them back time and again from all corners. During our interview, the sisters were frequently greeted by enthusiastic patrons, eager to share tales and their beloved dishes. “You come in and you’re greeted… and we give a friendly vibe,” smiles Lori.

 

“Good vibes!” adds Julie with a giggle. “Everyone is always smiling and happy.”


Signature dish of cheese enchiladas. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Cafe.

Central to the café’s allure is its Tex-Mex cuisine, with their enchiladas holding a place of honor on the menu. Prepared using Eloina’s timeless recipe, this dish alone has garnered statewide acclaim. Even during Lent, when fish and shrimp take the spotlight, the demand for Las Vegas Café’s delicious meals remains unwavering.

Lent special shrimp plate. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Cafe.

 

In the face of adversity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Las Vegas Café family demonstrated remarkable adaptability. Embracing change, they introduced curbside service, ensuring their patrons could enjoy their favorite meals safely. This flexibility, coupled with unwavering dedication, has been instrumental in Las Vegas Café’s continued success. “It was either adapt or fail,” Lori states.

 

“And it’s something we’ve kept, because our customers still use curbside,” says Julie.

 

“I think that was our saving grace,” adds Lori.

 

The passing of patriarch Julio Charles marked another challenge for the family, yet his legacy of compassion and community engagement lives on. “He grounded us,” Julie says quietly. “I just think about what he would say [when there was trouble].” “Nothing ever ruffled his feathers,” Lori says, matching her sister’s smile.


Nachos with guacamole. Photo courtesy of Las Vegas Cafe.

From providing hot meals during crises to sponsoring local students' extracurricular endeavors, Las Vegas Café remains a pillar of support in the community.

 

“That’s one of the things my dad was always good about,” says Julie. “He was always getting involved and trying to help the community when he could. We try to keep that tradition going.”

 

Looking ahead, the next generation eagerly anticipates carrying on that family tradition, ensuring that Las Vegas Café keeps its consistency for years to come. The sisters proudly note that their children are ready to step in and take the reins when their opportunity arises.

 

For six decades, the café has embodied the spirit of the Rio Grande Valley, serving not just delicious food, but also a generous helping of heart and heritage. Las Vegas Café is located at 1101 W. Harrison Ave. The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday, 11 am to 9 pm (closed on Sunday). They can be reached at 956-423-6749.


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