Dining » Dining Review

La Ha forever

The newly spiffed-up Mexican favorite still warms hearts, bellies.

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BRAND NEW: The redone La Hacienda on Cantrell Road.
  • BRAND NEW: The redone La Hacienda on Cantrell Road.

The way some friends and Arkansas Times staffers carried on in the wake of La Hacienda shutting down in December 2016 you'd have thought a close friend was in a coma. The Mexican food stalwart, located in Little Rock since 1990 and on Cantrell Road in an old Pizza Hut since 1996, was due for an update. But rather than a touch-up, owner Ignacio Alvarez took down most of the building and started again. When the redone restaurant reopened more than six months later, the celebrations among our crew were rapturous. But does La Ha, as its devotees call it, deserve all the adoration?

Probably. Especially if you highly value speed and cost. It's hard to think of any other restaurant in Little Rock with food as good and plentiful as La Hacienda's where you can be in and out in 30 minutes for 10 bucks or less. The formula is not the standard Tex-Mex ubiquitous in the region, nor is it the authentic Mexican food that's become more prevalent and celebrated in these parts in the past decade. It's somewhere in between. Maybe a kind of re-Mexicanized Tex-Mex, as former Times staffer Benjamin Hardy once suggested. That means the food is fresher and more flavorful than your typical Tex-Mex, but there's no cabeza or cactus anywhere on the menu.

Instead, the voluminous menu has your standard Tex-Mex offerings — burritos, chalupas, a chimichangas, enchiladas, fajitas, quesadillas, tamales and tacos — many of which are available as vegetarian options or in combo meals, which are a buck or two cheaper at lunch. The unsalted straight-from-the-fryer corn chips remain addictive. We know that La Ha regulars have their favorites among the three salsa varieties — a piquant verde, a standard mild salsa and a warm tomato and onion-y one — the restaurant provides complimentary, though our friend, a La Hacienda regular, says she's noticed that now sometimes servers only bring two, but will bring the third if asked. We could take or leave the tomato ones, but would eat the green by the bucketful. Because of our love for the verde salsa, we usually skip the white cheese dip ($4.99 for small, $7.99 for a soup-bowl-sized large), though our friend the regular says that mixing the green salsa with cheese dip elevates both. Another appetizer often ignored that we like: the shrimp cocktail ($8.99), a sort of cold seafood stew served in a goblet with Mexican-style saltines and avocado.

For entrees, we're fond of the Camarones Veracruz ($9.99 for lunch, $13.99 at dinner), slightly spicy shrimp grilled with peppers and onions and topped with pico de gallo. Flour tortillas are standard; we prefer the corn, which are available by request. The Carne Asada a la Diabla con Queso ($9.99 for lunch, $12.99 for dinner) is another standout for hungry eaters. It's grilled meat (your pick of steak or chicken) stir-fried with peppers and onions and chorizo and covered in queso. How can you go wrong there?

A STANDOUT: The slightly spicy Camarones Veracruz.
  • A STANDOUT: The slightly spicy Camarones Veracruz.

For one of our recent dining companions, the litmus test for a Tex-Mex restaurant is its fajitas ($7.99 for lunch, $10 for dinner). La Hacienda largely succeeded in that respect, with strips of toothsome and flavorful chicken. An accompanying side of guacamole didn't do much for him. Another, slightly off-beat suggestion for the not-so-adventurous diner: the Milanesa Steak ($9.99 for lunch or $12.99 for dinner), a breaded chicken breast or sirloin steak that's a lot like schnitzel. Just about everything comes with Mexican rice and refried beans topped with shredded cheese. The latter, so often an afterthought, is so good we often order it as a side.

The updated restaurant sure is spiffy. An interior wall that used to bifurcate the restaurant is gone, which opens up the space — and also makes it a bit louder. The booths, adorned with engravings of hacienda-style scenes and (of course) razorbacks, are polyurethane shiny. Much of the art looks new. The fluorescent lights may be a tad too bright. There are new jazzy circular booths in the corners and there's even a small bar near the east entrance. But, man, have they jammed in the seats. We went for an early lunch and were fine, but we can imagine at peak busy times the place could feel cramped.

Speaking of peak busy-ness, our friend the regular notes that a waitlist has become common at peak serving times, something she didn't remember seeing in years of dining at La Hacienda.

La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant
3024 Cantrell Road
661-0600


Quick bite

Street-style tacos, once only available off-menu, now have a prominent place among other standard offerings. The two tacos dish (beef, chicken or guacamole) for just $3.99 gives you a cheap option for a small lunch or after-work snack, and you can always eat enough free chips to be more than full. Also, the Margaritas seems to be bigger and stronger than ever before.

Hours

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Other info

Full bar. Credit cards accepted.

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