- Michael Roberts
- CARNE GUISADA: One of the higher-end dishes.
Some restaurants have been around so long that they just become part of the scenery, and such is the case with La Hacienda on Cantrell. Located in an old converted Pizza Hut, this family-owned Mexican restaurant may get overshadowed at times by newer and flashier restaurants, but forgetting about the place would be a mistake. Sure, they're serving up mostly the same food as they were 20 years ago, but when it tastes this good, why would they want to stop?
La Hacienda is still owned and operated by the Oseguera family, and they've built quite a mini-empire of restaurants from their humble origins in Hot Springs. When we eat at the Central Arkansas locations, we still see folks that served us in Hot Springs decades ago. That sort of commitment to the restaurant business results in service that is always quick, friendly and efficient, as well as food that is always hot and delicious.
The menu at La Hacienda is large, and we've often found ourselves at a loss as to what we want, despite the numerous times we've eaten at the place. But one thing is always certain: The meal must start off with a luscious bowl of cheese dip ($3.50 small, $6 large). This is queso just like we like it, velvet-smooth and scattered with thin-sliced peppers that provide just the right amount of spice. One of our biggest pet peeves is watery cheese dip, and La Hacienda's creamy version is just the right sort of chip-coating goodness that we hold as the gold standard of what good queso should be. If we're feeling really frisky, we'll upgrade to the Queso Fundido ($5.95 for two/$7.95 for four), which adds chorizo, jalapeno slices and some soft tortillas to the mix.
For many years, we stuck to the "combination dinner" section of the menu, with the No. 1 Combo ($7.95) being our go-to order. This plate is a perfect introduction to La Hacienda for people who have never eaten there, consisting of a crispy shredded beef taco, cheese enchilada and tamale, all served with rice and beans. The taco is a delight, with tender, flavorful beef being nestled inside a thin, crispy shell, and the cheese enchilada is, like the queso dip, a gooey, cheesy treat. But it's the tamale that's the star of this plate, and indeed a star of the menu as a whole.
As we fell further in love with the tamales at La Hacienda, we gravitated toward the No. 7 Combo ($7.95), which serves up three of the moist, pork-packed tamales with Mexican rice and some of the thickest, richest refried beans we've ever tasted. For best results, order these masa delights as God intended — drenched in a thick red sauce and topped with fresh pico de gallo. They'll douse them in queso upon request, but despite our love for melted cheese, the red sauce just makes for better eating. These tamales are also available a la carte for $4.95, so there's no excuse not to make them part of the meal somehow.
For a more Americanized (yet delicious) treat, we are fans of the Chimichanga ($10), alternating between shredded beef and shredded chicken as the filling for this massive, deep-fried pleasure. A deep-fried burrito is not health food, but surely all the wonderfully seasoned onions and bell peppers involved in this dish count for something, right? The same ingredients can be had in salad form, too, with the fried-shell La Hacienda Taco Salad ($7.95) — and again, this is not a salad that will show up on anyone's diet plan, but it's beyond delicious.
Things can get fancier than the basic lunch and dinner combinations at La Hacienda, and sometimes we can't resist going for some of the higher-end dishes. The Camarones a la Diabla ($17) is one of the best shrimp dishes we've had in town, showcasing the restaurant's mastery of spice and grill technique in a dish that pairs sweet prawns with tangy heat. The Carne Guisada ($12) takes this understanding of balanced spice and applies it to beef tips cooked slowly in a rich sauce made from guajillo chiles.
The range of prices on the La Hacienda menu means that no matter what there's something for any taste, from small bites to huge plates. There's nothing better than kicking back with a house margarita or tall glass of cinnamon-laced horchata and enjoying this lineup of family recipes that have been keeping Arkansawyers coming back to the Little Rock location again and again since 1997. The walls are plastered with various readers' choice awards and other recognitions, and given the consistency in quality we've experienced at every visit, we have no doubt that each was earned and well deserved.
If there's one thing that La Hacienda has perfected at its various locations, it's speed. Sure, the food is delicious, but the ability to have a full meal served up efficiently well within the timeframe of an hour lunch break should not be understated. Lunch special prices in the $6 range don't hurt, either.