The Woman Behind Malibu's Favorite Dish

 Lily and her husband, Abel, opening Lily’s Cafe in 1989.

Lily and her husband, Abel, opening Lily’s Cafe in 1989.

Written by Holly Bieler | Photography by Julie Wuellner

Lilly Castro has been busy for thirty years. Generally, the discovery of a nondescript, locally-cherished family eatery in a suburban town by a city’s foodie elite is accompanied by some degree of sudden pandemonium; insufferable wait-times and constantly clogged phone lines, lines of out-of-towners and grumbling locals stretching out the door, frenetic kitchens selling out each day. And while Point Dume Plaza’s beloved eatery Lily’s has received a slew of wider attention in recent years, with glowing write-ups and shout-outs appearing everywhere from Infatuation to Eater to Los Angeles Magazine, the newfound recognition hasn’t changed much about the day-to-day at Lily’s. They’ve always sold out of their trademark burritos, had lines stretching out the door, had hour-long wait-time that people grumble about, though they never cancel their orders.

“We’ve been busy since we opened,” Castro, the café’s namesake owner said recently. “It’s always been like this.”

With her wide smile and boundless energy, Castro has become one of Malibu’s most recognizable and beloved faces since opening up Lily’s some 30 years ago. Trying to have an uninterrupted conversation with her anywhere in the Point Dume Plaza is all but an exercise in futility—inevitably, about every few minutes, someone will come give her a hug, inquire about the restaurant, her family, her life. “The local people [here] support me so much,” Castro said. Originally from El Salvador, Castro was only 17 and just married when she moved to the United States with her husband Abel, following in the footsteps of her sister, who had moved a few years earlier to head up the Donut Shop on Point Dume with her boyfriend. Castro spoke hardly any English when she landed in the U.S., settling in Oxnard with Abel and starting to pick up shifts at her sister’s shop.

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Castro had only lived in the United States for a year, was just settling into her new life, when an opportunity suddenly dropped into her lap: her sister had had enough of her doughnut shop; did Lily want it? 

For Castro, taking over her sister’s small café amounted to the culmination of a lifelong dream. Growing up she had developed a passion and shown a talent for cooking at  a young age, helping out her mom and family members prepare family meals in the kitchen from as early as she can remember. “Back then, they [taught you to cook] early, and you helped,” Castro says. “I was always watching my Tia Cruz and my grandmas cooking.”

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Castro remembers one evening when she was eight years old, as her mother was laying out the ingredients to cook dinner, she remembered a last-minute errand she had to run, leaving Lily at home for no more than an hour. When she returned, Castro said, her mother could hardly believe her eyes. “When she came back, I had all the food ready for her,” Castro said. “I made chopped meat that turned out very juicy, with tomatoes and bell pepper, with a side of rice. My mom went, ‘Wow!’ She was very surprised.”

From that point on Castro was constantly in the kitchen, testing out recipes and ingredients, making meals for her brothers and sisters. “They always said I’m a good cook,” she said. “It’s my passion.”

So when the opportunity to open her own restaurant emerged, Lily jumped at it, she and Abel quickly taking over the lease and replacing the tired old doughnut shop sign with a new name and signage. The little Heathercliff doughnut shop would heretofore be called, Lily’s Café.

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Was she intimidated at all, opening her own business at just 18 years old? “Was I kind of scared?” she said. “Always, in your life, you have moments where you go, ‘Oh my God.’ But I had support. Always.” And if at 18 years old Lily didn’t have a surplus of experience, what she did have was a clear-cut vision. Almost immediately Lily and Abel decided they would do away with the shop’s stale menu of sandwiches and pastries, instead opting for dishes that reminded them of their native El Salvador and the home countries of their friends from countries like Mexico and Guatemala.

Lily, Abel and some of their best friends began feverishly cooking and taste-testing, tweaking old family recipes, combining different elements of a bunch, trying to put together the most delicious menu they could. “We got together and put all our ideas together,” Lily said. “We invented. When things worked, we’d give samples to people. That’s the way we came up with the menu.”

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Initially their menu was relatively limited, including chicken burritos and tacos, but almost immediately sales went through the roof. Their top seller from day one, Lily said, was their breakfast burrito, still their most ordered dish some 30 years later. “It was easy,” Castro said of how she came up with the recipe for her most famed dish. “We put beans, we put cheese, we put a little of this, of that, and when I tried it–” she finishes that thought with an effusive chef’s kiss.

If it sounds simple, don’t let Lily fool you. While her breakfast burrito might only have a few ingredients, the perfection with which each is cooked elevates the dish into the echelon of all-time great burritos. Its beans are incomparably creamy, eggs always fluffy and perfected seasoned, bacon crisped within an inch of its life, spectacularly fatty and crispy, all wrapped up inside a freshly-griddled flour tortilla. Since the café opened, Lily’s breakfast burrito has become something of its trademark dish, and that which has garnered fame for the café, ranking #17 On Eater’s list of the best breakfast burritos in Los Angeles. A commendable ranking, to be sure, though if you ask any Malibu-ite, one that’s about 16 spots too low. Or ask just anyone with good taste in breakfast burritos.

“I have customers that live in Santa Monica, live in downtown L.A., who buy two, three breakfast burritos at a time and freeze them,” Lily said. “When they come home they want breakfast burritos and nothing else.”

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Within a couple years of its 1989 opening, Lily’s Café had expanded beyond their old menu, and now boasts everything from chilaquiles and enchiladas to tortas, as well as their famous burritos. Each dish is still cooked with the same quality of ingredients and meticulous preparation that Lily established when she first opening the café. Her infamously delicious pinto beans, smooth, with a subtle garlic kick, still simmer for three hours on the dot to achieve their optimal consistency, luxurious, rich and almost sauce-like. The chicken for their chicken burritos (which, to my mind, are criminally under-appreciated) is still marinated in a special green marinade for three hours, while their pork sits in a secret sauce of spices, developed when the restaurant first opened, for eight hours as it always has to achieve its unctuous, unique flavor. “People are so happy with what I have, if I change something then they’re mad,” Lily said, with a laugh. “I can change anything here but the menu.”

Which isn’t to say nothing has changed since Lily opened her café 32 years ago. She has had a daughter, Lindsi Castro, who graduated from Malibu High in 2008 and now lives in San Francisco. And if everything goes according to plan, the café should expand into an even bigger space over the next year or so.

 Lily and Abel with their daughter, Lindsi.

Lily and Abel with their daughter, Lindsi.

But if she has experienced many blessings in that time, Lily has also experienced tragedy. Her husband Abel passed away in 2008 following a battle with cancer, and in 2014 Lily herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even while undergoing chemotherapy Lily made it a point to get into the kitchen, and by 2017 she was fully in remission. Almost immediately, Lily says, she was back in the café.

“I love to work,” she says. Indeed, Lily insists, she will never retire. She loves coming to the café everyday, she says, because it represents her dream realized.

“I’m very proud about everything,” she says. “How this [has] grown. Sometimes I cannot believe it. Sometimes I’m in the kitchen working, washing dishes, and I remember, I am Lily.” MM

Holly Bieler