La Calle Doce Has Been Serving Mexican Seafood for 30 Years. Here's How.
Laura and Silka Sanchez
In 1981, Laura and Oscar Sanchez opened La Calle Doce in small house in Oak Cliff. Now, more than 30 years later, with the recent addition of a new bar and patio, it stands as a staple for Mexican seafood in Dallas.
Raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Laura's father instilled in her the importance of an education, which drove her to excel in school, eventually earning her a full academic scholarship to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She says the most distinctive measure of her American education was its directive to think for herself.
Laura works closely with her daughter Silka, who was essentially raised in this wood frame restaurant on 12th Street. Together they, along with many other family members, run La Calle Doce in Oak Cliff and in Lakewood, as well as El Ranchito. The conversation, part of our ongoing series of chef interviews, begins with Silka.
You grew up in the restaurant business. Yes, I was 3 years old in 1981 when they first opened the restaurant.
What are some of your earliest memories here? We were just always here. But it was so much different then -- so much smaller. My brother and I would watch TV back in the office and peek out every now and then, but mostly we just stayed in the back and watched TV.
What did you learn from watching your parents work so much? Dedication. They spent so much time here. Since we've been around for over 30 years, sometimes it's easy for me to forget all the time and effort they put into this place. But my mom has always worked so hard.
Also, I've learned that you have to have an eye on everything all the time. That's one good thing we have going with my aunt and uncles being managers here. So many family members are involved and that helps a lot.
What did you learn from your mom about working with people? I have learned a lot from her. She's very tough. As a woman running a restaurant it's important to her not to be perceived as weak and she's taught me that -- even though it's not really my forte. And she's hard on a lot of the guys and different reps that come through here. But, being a female in this business, you have to be strong.
As a child growing up in the area, where did you eat? My dad loved food, so we always had our certain restaurants. There was an old Chinese food restaurant called Hunan's on Greenville and we went there every Sunday. Kostas Café was our favorite Greek place. He also loved to make Italian food at home. But other than that, we ate here almost every meal. Which while it tastes good, it's not so good on your weight. That's why I have my own plate on the menu with ceviche and a salmon taco.
How has the Dallas food scene has evolved recently? Well, after high school I moved away for about eight years for college and work. Then, I came back in 2005 and since then, Oak Cliff has changed so much.
(Her mother Laura arrives.) I was just asking your daughter how the Dallas food scene has evolved since just 2005. How do you think it's changed? I love the fact that people have rediscovered Oak Cliff and they are giving us more attention. After 30 years in the business it has changed so much. It used to be that you needed to be in either Uptown or North Dallas to have a fancy restaurant, but they're opening up here now. And that makes me happy because the more the merrier.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Dallas? We really like Hillstone, Nonna and Lucia. And there are a lot of new places we want to try like Campo, and 303 Bar and Grill.
Your father passed away when you were young, but he had a big impact on you. What did he teach you? He impressed upon me to do well in school. Writing and reading were huge. Reading more than anything though. He loved to read poems and he taught me at an early age about grammar and pronunciation. He also taught me that even if you are not the smartest, to apply yourself.
What impact did going to college in the U.S. after high school in Mexico have on you? Well, I came over for college as an exchange student on a full academic scholarship for Warren Wilson College. I was only 17 at the time. Quickly I learned that's there's a big difference between the education systems in Mexico and the United States. Here they teach you to think differently. In Mexico you memorize a lot -- it's not, "What do you think?" It's just about memorizing. But it was a good transition because I had to think about what I was reading instead of just what the author thought. And that was a great lesson for me.
Is it a point of pride to have so many of your family members working for you now? It gives me great joy to have my family with me. But, it's supposed to be third generation that you have to watch out for. The first generation are the ones with all the dreams and they work hard. The second generation still has that passion also. But, the third generation is the hard one. That's where it looses its essence. They don't have that drive anymore. That's the theory anyway. We tell them "it's up to you" if they want to stay in it.
What do you think are the most important concepts for that third generation to understand about running this business? Knowing that it's an everyday job. You cannot ever say, "I've arrived." The minute you say that you're sliding. You have to keep trying and working really hard. Even though we've been in Dallas for so long, we've always try to evolve a little bit more. We watch what everyone else is doing -- not with the recipes, but stuff in the back of the house. How do you evolve with such a steady client base that already knows what they want and like? Whatever is trending. It can be anything ... like years ago there was a big thing with three-colored margaritas. It's simple things. We always watch trends, but we do it our way.
What's the secret to maintaining quality in the kitchen for 30 years? (She opens her jacket as to show her figure and laughs) Like this! But, really what I always tell my sister is we need to try everything all the time. That's how we make sure nothing changes.
How do you train new cooks? They have to work in the kitchen for a while before they cook. And even though we try the new stuff, we also can't ever forget the basics. Silva: My mom says that we always have to try everything because the cooks will slowly change things. Laura: Yes, they'll start cutting corners, thinking their way is faster or better. Silva: And they'll also change things to their own taste preferences.
What's a key rule in your kitchen? Consistency. Everything has to be the same every time. Our main cook started here when she was 16 as a dishwasher. Now she's 46. She keeps talking about retiring, but I just tell her just needs to take more time off. She takes two and a half months now. But, I tell her that's it. She can't quit, just take vacation. She's just so good and so consistent. The other kid is pretty young, mid to late thirties and has been here about 15 years. So, we don't have a lot of turnover in the kitchen, which is very important.
Have you always kept the same recipes? Yes, and for the longest time I worried about my recipes. And I was always so careful not to let anyone else, even in the kitchen, know them. And there are some things that still no one knows. But, other things, like our cocktail sauce; for the longest time only my husband and I knew it. But, it turned out to be such a hassle because one of us always had to be here because we make it fresh so often. Then we decided just to share it a little.
I understand you travel a lot. What are some of your favorite food cities? New York is number one. We go there every year for my birthday. And we love everything that Danny Meyer does. I think he has the most wonderful restaurants; we love Union Café, Gramercy Tavern and the Shake Shacks. We also love eating at the restaurant atop of Bergdorf Goodman.
San Francisco is also great. Recently we went to Southern California and tried Silva's -- they have locations all over the place and are supposed to be so great. We tried it and it wasn't good at all. That's what happens when you get too large. There's no way. It's just too difficult to run so many places. And that showed because their food wasn't any good. It had the look, but the food wasn't good. Although they did have good strong margaritas.
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