Just after midnight on October 1, 2017, José Luis and Carmen Estevez woke up to the sound of their life’s work going up in flames.
The driver of a minivan had lost control of his vehicle and crashed into their car and their restaurant, Casa Luis, a landmark on West Jericho Turnpike in Smithtown since 1989. The gas tanks of both cars exploded, followed by the restaurant gas line. The couple, who lived in the apartment above the restaurant, were able to escape unharmed, although the driver died at the scene and much of the restaurant was destroyed.
“People asked me, ‘Will you open again?’” says José Luis Estevez, known as Luis, now 75. “I could have taken the insurance and done something else. But I had to open.”
It was as much about his community as his family.
“From this restaurant my children were able to study. One son is now an engineer, the second is a computer programmer, and my daughter is an accountant who works with me. I owe this town that respect. The people loved this place,” he says. “And I have waiters and cooks who have been with me 20 or 30 years. I had to open.”
The community helped make that happen.
“Everyone helped us,” says Estevez.
Read more about Smithtown’s dining scene in our archives.
His daughter, Delia Arias, agrees. “Clients, other business owners, everyone came to help. Emilio’s General Tire gave us a storage container. We would go out to eat since there was no kitchen and the owners invited us to the meals. The Town of Smithtown called us and said, ‘You’ve been in business here for a long time; what do you need?’”
A year and a half later Casa Luis opened once again, fully renovated, with new gorgeous tilework, including a dramatic signature mural behind the bar. All the familiar faces, atmosphere (including the fireplace!), and Spanish and Galician classics that the neighborhood had grown to love are still there. Plump camarones al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce), camarones en salsa blanca (shrimp in white sauce), hearty paella Valenciana (shellfish and chicken and rice), tortilla Española (savory egg, potato and onion cake), massive steaks and chops, sangría, in generous portions, served with a smile.
Estevez—who is from Galicia—learned his craft over many years and three continents. His parents were business people who had immigrated to Brazil and in 1958, at age 14, he left Spain to join them there. They helped him start his first business, selling pizza and sandwiches, and he was happy enough, but back in Spain his younger uncles had been to the United States and their singing of its praises made a big impact. His cousins in New York were capitalizing on the fever for Iberian cuisine fueled by the Spanish Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair and opened El Faro to satisfy the cravings. Estevez came to New York in 1968 and spent 10 years at El Faro, marrying his Chilean wife, Carmen, and starting his family in Woodside. But he had an eye farther east.
“I liked Long Island a lot, because it reminded me of Galicia; it was very green,” he says. He recalls hunting pheasant in those days. “It was a better atmosphere to raise children.” So the family moved out to East Northport and with partners opened Iberia in Huntington Village. After 13 years, the Estevez were ready to open their own place. And that’s when Casa Luis was born.
It was a family affair.
“The cooking is my thing,” says Estevez, who still works in the kitchen. “My wife was the hostess although these days she often takes care of the grandchildren. The children went to school then came here to work. I didn’t pay them until things got going better!”
His daughter says she had a love-hate relationship with it.
“We started working here at 13 or 14,” she recalls. “It’s not like they asked us. We worked weekends, in the summer, for big parties. I liked having the money to buy my things, but it bothered me when there was a party with school friends and I couldn’t go. I loved being with all these people in the restaurant—they became like family and we had a good time—but I hated working weekends.”
The dedication to the clientele has paid off. As soon as the restaurant reopened in January 2019, the place was packed with pent-up demand. It was also packed with love for the family.
“It was awesome,” says Delia Arias, whose own children now hang out in the dining room. “When we reopened we were nervous. My dad was in the kitchen and when he came out, you could hear people saying ‘Here comes Luis! Here comes Luis!’ and then everyone started to applaud.”
“I was so surprised,” says Luis Estevez. “It went on for days, every time I came out of the kitchen. It was very moving.”
Casa Luis is located at 1033 Jericho Turnpike West in Smithtown. For more information about Casa Luis, please visit the restaurant’s website.