By Karina Gerry
A Smithtown mom-and-pop restaurant has been able to reopen its doors more than a year after a horrific blaze left many questioning its fate.
Casa Luis, located at 1033 W. Jericho Turnpike, served up lunch to customers Jan. 10 for the first time since a devastating single-car crash set the restaurant up in flames in October 2017.
At around midnight Oct. 1, a 2004 Nissan Quest crashed into a 2011 Ford pickup truck and then plowed into the Spanish restaurant. The sedan burst into flames, killing the driver and setting the 30-year-old restaurant ablaze. Owner Jose Luis Estevez, commonly known as Luis, and his wife, Carmen, were asleep upstairs when they received a call from their neighbor alerting them to the fire.
“You know how many customers call me, ‘Luis, are you OK?’” Estevez said. “‘Do you need help?’ It’s so nice, so nice.”
“I’m not a famous guy. I’m a real guy, but I love what I do. I have my place and I love that people like my food or enjoy my restaurant. I still work because I love it.”
— Jose Luis Estevez
The owner said the resulting fire destroyed the restaurant’s kitchen, but left the dining room untouched. The couple’s upstairs apartment was damaged and the outside of the building was pitch black from smoke damage. Estevez, an immigrant from Spain, and his wife found themselves suddenly forced out of a home and a business they had spent years nurturing it.
“My mom took it really bad,” said Delia Arias, who works at the restaurant with her parents. “She was very fragile for months after, but she pulled through. My parents are strong people.”
Arias, who along with her siblings grew up helping around the restaurant, was surprised at the extent of the damage from the fire.
“The next day, I came to see the place,” she said. “It was a big shock, it was emotional, it was a little bit of everything all at once.”
Both Arias and her father said there was an outpouring of love and support from the community during the 15 months it took to rebuild. The local deli offered Estevez free coffee and lunch, and his fellow restaurant owners offered Casa Luis’ employees jobs to ensure that they could return to work when the business reopened.
“I never expected that in my life,” Estevez said. “Out of this world.”
Arias echoed her father’s sentiments, noting that customers, friends and family members all reached out to make sure her family was okay.
“You didn’t even ask and people were just coming and like ‘You need this, here take this,’” she said. “It was amazing. Such a horrible thing happened and everyone was so amazing to us, it was a really nice thing in such a crazy time.”
For Estevez, there was never any question about whether or not he was going to rebuild after the fire.
“This business gave me a lot of things,” he said. “So for respect of business, of the people in the town, on Long Island. I opened again.”
During the first two weeks of reopening customers came to celebrate with Estevez and eat at the local restaurant they had come to love over the past 30 years.
“I’m not a famous guy,” he said. “I’m a real guy, but I love what I do. I have my place and I love that people like my food or enjoy my restaurant. I still work because I love it.”