North Central News, 2003
Long-time favorite serves up traditional Mexican fare
Sylvia's La Canasta restaurant is a reflection of its owner - colorful and exuberant, with a dash of the unexpected. Walls are painted bright blue, purple and ochre. The piped-in music is lively, and the chefs banter good-naturedly behind the self-serve counter where diners place their orders. At Sylvia's, customers are treated like family; there's no waiter service. Diners order at the counter, seat themselves at comfortable vinyl booths and replenish their own chips, salsa and ice water whenever they like.
"We tried to change the idea a few years back," Sylvia Menchaca says; "the customers wouldn't hear of it."
Although service may be unconventional, the food, like Menchaca, is straightforward. She serves traditional Mexican favorites such as tamales, enchiladas. Flautas and chimichangas made from family recipes.
Menchaca attributes her success to her mother, Carmen Abril Lopez, who, with her late husband Richard "Wero" Abril, first opened La Canasta Restaurant on 1962. The couple expanded to include a side business selling tamales, meats and other Mexican deli products. When her husband died in 1974, Abril was shaken and saddened, but "just kept going," Menchaca says, adding "she taught us how to face life successfully."
Menchaca, who worked with her five sisters and one brother in the family business, remembers stone-grinding the corn tortillas, helping her parents and siblings in the kitchen, waiting on customers, working behind the cash register and doing "whatever else needed to be done." Along the way she learned the trade from the inside out. Today, Abril still owns the original La Canasta Restaurant, while Menchaca's siblings own their own restaurants or work in the family owned La Canasta tortilla factory.
Although Menchaca briefly left the restaurant business hen she reached adulthood, she soon realized that creating great meals for others was her first love, Fifteen years ago, she opened Sylvia's La Canasta Restaurant in a tiny space on the southeast corner of 7th Avenue and Missouri. The eatery moved to its present location several years ago. Today, Menchaca is the petite dynamo behind a mini-empire that included Sylvia's La Canasta Restaurant, a thriving catering company and an on-line store that supplies homemade salsas, chips, tamales and deli items. A self-proclaimed "project person," the restaurant owner has half a dozen new ideas in the works at any one time. Not all of them center around cooking or food. Menchaca, who bought the strip mall where her restaurant is housed, is continually refurbishing and beautifying the area. She points with pride to the new patio cover, landscaping and brick wall surrounding the restaurant; other improvements are in the works. Menchaca sees her efforts as a "thank you" to the neighborhood.
"I grew up in central Phoenix, and I love this area," she says. "Being a part of the community is very important to me."
Menchaca also believes in encouraging those around her to succeed. "I just guide my employees; it's like a wheel that's already been greased," she says. When a nail salon moved in next door to the restaurant, for instance, Menchaca rolled up her sleeves, helping the owner to paint and decorate the space. But perhaps her greatest contribution is her "can-do" attitude. "Many people want to achieve, but they struggle with obstacles in their way," she says. "I try to let others know that they can go after what they really want."
Sylvia's La Canasta Restaurant is located at 5502 N. 7th Ave. in Phoenix (northwest corner of 7th Avenue and Missouri). Hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 602-242-4252 for take out orders, or visit www.sylviscanasta.com.
For a meal that's on the lighter side, try Sylvia's Chicken Fiesta, a recipe created "for my mother when she was on a diet," Sylvia laughs. The dish has become so popular it's now featured on the La Canasta catering menu.
Sylvia's Chicken Fiesta
6-8 chicken tender (white meat)
3-4 medium size tomatoes
1-2 large yellow onions
1 small can diced green chiles
4 fresh jalapenos
2 teaspoons margarine
1/4 cup diced fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons hot or mild chile powder
(New Mexico style)
1 teaspoon EACH salt and pepper
3/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/8 teaspoon cumin powder
Mix together the salt, pepper, chile powder, garlic, and cumin. Set aside. Dice tomatoes and onions into 1-inch squares. Slice jalapenos. In mixing bowl, stir together tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro. Add green chiles. Set aside.
In a large frying pan or griddle, melt 1 teaspoon of margarine. Add chicken and cover. When meat turns white on both sides, add vegetables and another 1 tablespoon of margarine. Toss with a spatula, add spice mixture and toss again. Cover and continue cooking for 3-5 minutes. Uncover and toss until vegetables are cooked thoroughly.
Garnish with lemon wedge and fresh avocado. Serve with fresh corn or flour tortillas.
Reprinted with permission from North Central News
© North Central News, 2003
The Arizona Republic / The Rep - May 9, 1999
A MOTHER'S TOUCH
Matriarch shares love of cooking with generations of chefs
Carmen Abril Lopez is responsible for shaping generations of cooks. The matriarch of the Abril family has passed down her love of cooking, along with her talent for elevating food to an art form, to her six daughters and one son.
She also has shared her recipes and secrets over the years with her 25 grandchildren, many of whom are grown and, like their parents, work in the family business. Although her four great-grandchildren are babies, Abril Lopez will one day teach them the family's culinary traditions.
Abril Lopez's first husband, Richard "Wero" Abril, was a butcher by trade. He also had worked in a tortilla plant as a young man and twin dreams of manufacturing tortillas and owning a restaurant.
The couple opened a tiny restaurant, La Canasta, in Phoenix in 1962. The supplemented their income by selling meat and homemade tortillas to other restaurants.
Life was not easy. The couple would make the tortillas by hand, beginning at 2 a.m. each morning and deliver them by 6 a.m. to their clients, other restaurant owners. After a short rest, it was time to start cooking the day's menu for their customers. After feeding the lunch and dinner crowds, the couple would come home and Abril Lopez would feed her own family, many times choosing non-Mexican dishes that she would make from scratch. Because the couple spent much of their time at the restaurant, all seven of the Abril children grew up working in the family business. They made tortillas; worked the kitchen making dad's famous carne asada and mom's celebrated recipes; waited on customers; and ran the cash registers; and learned the trade from the inside out.
"My mother raised all of us in the restaurant business," said Sylvia Menchaca, who owns Sylvia's La Canasta restaurant at Seventh and Missouri avenues in Phoenix. "We love cooking and are all good cooks. We can attribute everything to our mother. She was very instrumental in all of our success."
In 1974, the family went through its toughest time. Wero Abril died, leaving behind his wife and children who, at that time, ranged in age from 6 to 23, Abril Lopez was left to raise the children and carry on the family business alone.
Menchaca and her brother, Richard Abril, said that although their father's death was a tragedy for the family, it seemed to make their mother's resolve even stronger. She took on the task of being both mother and father to the children while also expanding the family's tortilla manufacturing part of the business.
"Yes, things in my life were not always easy," Abril Lopez said. "But I think the hard times made me a better person. I made a living cooking, I provided for my children. I did the things mothers do.
"And I passed along to my children a strong work ethic. I told them, 'You can always make a living. Even if you have to sell menudo door-to-door like their father and I once did. You can always go into the food business. Food sells.' "
Abril Lopez, along with the hard work of her children, has created successful food business. Four of the children, Linda Rios, Josie Ippolito, Diane Mendoza and Leticia Abril, went into the tortilla manufacturing side of the business called La Canasta Mexican Food Inc.
Menchaca, Richard Abril and Lydia Abril opened their own La Canasta restaurants throughout the Valley. They all religiously use the same recipe formulas created by their mother decades ago. And Abril Lopez still owns the family's original restaurant at 723 S. Seventh Ave. Because tortillas and cooking were a large part of the family's life, it's no wonder that most of the Abril children's most vivid childhood memories center on food.
Sylvia Menchaca remembers stone-grinding the corn for the corn tortillas. And making the flour tortillas and stretching them by hand. The family would then cook the tortillas on a hot iron grill. The concrete under the grill would get so hot, it would burn their feet and they'd have to hop around because they couldn't leave the work undone.
Richard Abril, who admits being spoiled because he is the only boy and the second-to-youngest child, remembers constantly being shooed out of the kitchen by mama for snitching hot tortillas and eating them before they had a chance to be packaged or turned into a meal.
Josie Ippolito said she and her siblings found ways to turn the hard work into fun and games. "Since we always had the business mentality, we would make up games to see who was the fastest," Ippolito said. "The kids would see who could chop onions the fastest, who could hand-stretch the flour tortillas the fastest. It made the work fun and would help the time go by quicker."
Although she laughs at the memories, Ippolito is glad her children, nieces and nephews won't have to work as hard as she, her mother and siblings did. Technology has changed the business for the better over the years. The family members who run La Canasta Tortilla Manufacturing oversee the production of 70,000 dozen tortillas a day.
Because Abril's grown children are so success-oriented, they rarely stop to think about the past. But when they do, they remember two constants throughout their childhood: mother and work. And they are thankful for both. "She is an excellent mother," Richard Abril said. "She instilled good morals in us like faith, hard work, family and responsibility that will forever be with us. And we have tried to instill those values in our kids. To this day, I am thankful for everything my mother taught me. She made me the person I am today.
"Oh, and did I mention? She is the most amazing cook," he added with a smile.
The Arizona Republic / The Rep - May 7, 1998
MEXICAN FOOD FANS ARE WINNERS AT
SYLVIA'S LA CANASTA
Classy decor makes eating here cheap.
Name: Sylvia's La Canasta Restaurant.
Where: 5502 N. Seventh Ave, Phoenix
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of eight or more. Call ahead. Takeout orders welcome.
Type of Food: Mexican
What's good: Ground Beef Taco ($2.29), bean tostada ($1.99), cheese enchiladas ($2.50), Navajo Tacos ($4.89-$5.19), combination No. 13 (beef taco, bean tostada, cheese enchilada, $6.29).
Atmosphere: Casual, comfortable in and out restaurant with three dining areas, including the new Casita dining room and a shaded outdoor patio.
Kid Menu: Child's Dinner ($4.99) provides one mini taco, beans, rice and a small drink (12 & Under Only).
Smoke-free: Smoking on patio only.
Beverages: Mexican and domestic beer, wine and wine coolers, fountain sodas, imported Mexican bottled sodas.
Noise Level: Good
Description: You may be surprised by the interior of Sylvia's La Canasta on Seventh Avenue. It's still an order-at-the-counter sort of place, with a chip-and-salsa bar for sit-down diners, but the tables are covered with attractive Mexican tiles. And next door, adjacent to a store specializing in furniture and crafts from Mexico, is a second, more spacious and elegant dining room called Sylvia's Casita.
Nonetheless, takeout and generous plates of molten local-style Mexican food, served quickly, remain the primary reasons for the restaurant's enduring popularity. In addition to prepared foods from the menu, customers may buy La Canasta's famous tortillas by the dozen; beans, rice, salsa and chile by the pint; and masa and other ingredients by the pound.
Keep Sylvia's La Canasta deeply shaded outdoor patio in mind for a future casual breakfast. Weekday? Weekend? You make the call. - Penelope Corcoran