For nearly five months every year, Peace River’s landscape is winter-locked in shades of white, grey and brown — save for Su Casa Café, a Mexican restaurant that’s painted the shade of a pregnant 5 o’clock sun, a hanging orange in the sky, and trimmed with the colour of the Pacific waters that lap at your toes. A Diego Rivera inspired mural depicts the Virgin Mary bent in silent prayer, while skeleton lovers dance to the mariachi.
Su Casa means ‘your house’ though it truly belongs to the Reina del Norte, Maria Cyr — the Queen of the North.
Maria was born and raised in Mazatlán, Mexico, and moved to Canada’s warmer west coast when she was only seventeen years old. Lonely and unaccustomed to Canada’s cold, Maria watched the soaps to learn English, and prepared the recipes that defined her childhood. She eventually adapted to her new country, raised her kids into adults, and longed to share the flavours of her home-country with others.
In 2000, Maria opened Su Casa with her partner, Greg, along the banks of the Peace River, and began serving cactus stuffed quesadillas, charred chile rellenos, deep fried tostados and ‘to-die-for’ homemade soups that surprised tastebuds and built a loyal following. I should know.
I quickly fell in love with Maria and her cooking when I was only sixteen years old and began waitressing at Su Casa. The restaurant became a kind of second home in Peace River, and Maria, my Latina mother. It was a place where I learned the importance of cooking with fresh ingredients and concocting recipes from the heart and listening to Latin music and swirling in Maria’s long and brightly coloured skirts. Maria’s passion for people and food and life was impressionable.
I loved how vulnerable she was — as I watched her prepare her elaborate dishes (involving many steps of stacking flavour upon flavour), she’d mix ingredients and spices and share with me the pain of heartbreak and loneliness. The emotional memories that so many people carry, but so few have the courage to voice aloud. We’d deconstruct my own ‘sixteen-year-old’ love life (oh, the drama!) and she always served me her raspberry icing sugar cookies to help soothe a broken heart.
Over the years, Su Casa has changed locations once — now it’s located up at the old train station off the main highway — and also scaled-back to just six, or seven tables. But the heart of the place is the same as Maria continues to cook with the same passion and creativity.
I remember the last time I saw Maria at the restaurant. It was a year and a half ago, just before I left for Uganda, and she served me her new crema de mango soup with white fish. She had dreamed of being up in the full limbs of a mango tree. When she woke up, her cooking instincts told her she needed to prepare a dish celebrating mango.
Maria’s mango soup was as divine her dream that inspired it.
And today — my creativity frozen solid as an ice cube — I burst into the warmth of Su Casa and hoped the old Friday favourite sopa de aguacate y camaron (shrimp avocado soup) would still be on the menu. I wouldn’t be disappointed. The whole place looked, smelled and sounded as vibrant and delicious as it always had.
“Is Maria working?” I asked the waitress. She nodded and smiled. “Okay, tell her that her little hija has come home.”
The doors swung open and out came Maria, her beautiful black hair pulled back, bright silver and gold earrings dangling from her ears, and her lips painted, as always, red as a hibiscus flower.
We embraced, laughed, danced, and then she sat down across from me. The steaming bowl of shrimp and avocado soup arrived — it was the same soup she’d once given me a recipe for and made me swear that I’d take to the grave without telling a soul. (“Or I’ll haunt you forever, hija!” she had warned, shaking a wooden spoon at me).
“So how’s your love life?” she asked and I burst into a wide smile.
“My darling,” she cooed, “you’re full of sunshine!”
Home again, I thought. Hard not to smile inside the house of the Queen of the North.