Opened during depths of pandemic, restaurant thrives

By James Rose
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In case you’re wondering, abuelita means little grandmother (with affection) in Spanish. “All of my recipes come from my mother,” says Su Casa’s head chef and driving force Luz Hernandez Munoz, 37. “My bean recipe is especially sentimental because it’s my great-grandmother’s recipe and I’ve never met anyone who’s ever used the secret ingredient and technique that she passed down through the generations.”

With her husband Eric Rangel Hernandez, 35, and four children: Madeline, 16, Emily, 15, Adi, 9, and Das, 7, Luz opened her seventh restaurant in Skookum Inn in Oct. 2020. “It was nerve-wracking to open a restaurant in the heart of the pandemic,” Luz says. “We didn’t know what to expect. There was lots of risk by putting ourselves out there.” Adi and Das would do their online Martin Morigeau courses from the kitchen. Chemistry formulas were on one half of the whiteboard. On the other was the restaurant grocery list.

Back then, the local community showed up first and supported Luz’s vision and execution for Mexican comfort cuisine. On the menu, you’ll find tacos, burritos, enchiladas (verdes, rancheras, etc.), quesadillas, chimichangas, tortilla soups, sizzling fajitas, cinnamon cafe de la olla, tostadas, pico de gallo and fresas con crema among other desserts. “When my parents moved from Mexico to the states before coming to Canada, my mom couldn’t find the same ingredients. So she innovated what ingredients she used. She taught me all I know.”

Turning her mother’s recipes vegan is Luz’ signature. “I was able to convince my husband to become a vegan after I served him my veganized Al Pastor tacos (marinated pork pineapple traditionally). “It’s true. They are so full of flavour I never would’ve known,” proud, carnivore Eric says. This fall, Luz plans to add more spice to her menu and more creative dishes, like cow’s tongue tacos.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with the support of the community,” Luz says.“When we first opened, there were no tourists in the valley so we were purely supported by the community. We can’t say thank you enough.”

Su Casa’s business started booming when provincial governments began easing pandemic restrictions at the tail end of a long, hard winter. “This summer has been extraordinary. It’s the best start I’ve had compared to the other six restaurants I’ve opened.”

Those other six restaurants Luz was a part of were spread across western Canada. After moving to the Columbia Valley five years ago, Luz thought she’d take an indefinite break from running a restaurant. She needed some Luz time (snowboarding, paddleboarding), and some stay-at-home mothering time. Eric meanwhile, went to work in the far-reaches, welding boilermakers.

But Luz’ itch to cook for others never went away. She first started scratching that itch with a three-day per week pop-up taqueria in the cafe in Canal Flats (where they live). The popularity of which led to requests from friends and clients for Luz to start doing private catering.

“They would say to me: we’ll buy the groceries and pay you to cook in our house,” Luz said. This is why if you Google Su Casa, you still find Su Casa Mexican Chef as the business’s name.

Luz loved this format compared to operating a fixed address restaurant on a fixed weekly schedule. “I loved doing my own schedule, and I was invited into some really cool parties I was at the centre of. I became close friends with clients and I was doing what I love on my own time and making money.” She became so busy that she had to turn down business. “It made me sad knowing I couldn’t serve as many people as were requesting me,” she says. “I felt like was letting people down by turning them down. I love serving [and] making people happy with food. I would go to bed sad. So that sprung the idea of opening a restaurant so I wouldn’t have to turn anyone down!”

Luz said the Skookum Inn location had always whistled at her. There it sat vacant for years after playing host to a number of short-lived dining establishments. When Luz found out the building’s ownership changed hands, she went in to inquire about the lease. Still available. And then came the summer of 2019, Luz and her two daughters moved to Portage la Prairie to help Luz’ madre open her own restaurant.

Portage la Prairie was three birds, one stone: Luz spent time with her mother and daughters together for an extended period, Madeline and Emily learned how to be front-house managers, and Luz witnessed the demand for her family’s brand of Mexican cuisine. They slept in tents, and worked 16 hour days, seven days a week. But they bonded. The experience emboldened Luz to pursue her rapidly coalescing dream of opening her own restaurant in the Columbia Valley: a place the family has a deep love for. Luz and Eric’s first trip to the area was on their honeymoon ten years ago, where they stayed at a friend’s place in Radium Hot Springs.

Without Eric’s undying support for his wife’s passions, the restaurant wouldn’t be possible. When Emily celebrated her quinceañera this past summer (see page 13), Luz spent three days and nights preparing the stock for Eric to manage on his own.

“We serve traditional, authentic Mexican family food,” Luz says. “When you eat at Su Casa, you’re eating food I raise my kids on. This isn’t trendy fusion fare. At my restaurant, you’re walking into mom’s kitchen.”