Gringo Mex food bears faint resemblance to Mexican cuisine. Refried beans, cheese, tortillas, some lettuce, some chilies -- he aqui! a sit-down Taco Bell. The real thing is considerably more subtle and generally hard to find, but, hope springing eternal, when I heard about the Hacienda, it seemed possible riches lay on Belair Road.
The Hacienda's neighborhood is Gardenville, above Moravia Road, where, on the southwest corner of Belair and Woodlea, the restaurant announces itself with a large neon sign. In a small vestibule inside, a white board welcomes friends of the restaurant in felt-tip pen: Hi there, Lorraine and John. Further in, water cascades over some colored rocks, and colored paper flowers bloom among plastic cactuses with plastic prickles.
We were seated a couple of steps up in a colorful dining room where people wore casual clothing, looked comfortable and happy, and were drinking -- most of them -- either a pale green drink or a pink drink. Both came in big-bowled glasses and had plastic straws poking out through some crushed ice.
We ordered Mexican beers with lime sections, and checked out, first, the serape pattern inlaid in the plastic-topped table, and then, the Mexican throw hanging from an iron railing, the rattan chairs with high-arching backs, and the pinatas hanging up next to the light fixtures. One pinata looked like a pink and white elephant, another one, like Batman.
One of my companions, who'd never participated in the eating-out-and-talking-about-it business before, expressed surprise that our peregrinations took us to a place as unprepossessing as the Hacienda. "Ah," we argued, "but how else could we have found a treasure like the Orchard Market last week?"
We settled in and ordered three appetizers: guacamole ($1.65), bean soup ($1.75) and crab and shrimp quesadilla ($5.50). Guacamole needs the ripe, subtly flavored avocados that, for much of the year, are hard to find. The Hacienda's guacamole, though a natural-looking, attractive avocado green, tasted like bitter mayonnaise, with garlic, onion and a bit of chili in it. The bean soup was watery and lacked the complexity and warming richness of a good bean soup. The two thin slices of lemon that floated in it constituted a too-significant taste.
The crab and shrimp appetizer consisted of supermarket-quality Cheddar, four or five small shrimp, a -- of crab sandwiched between two dinner plate-sized flour tortillas, and a slathering of sour cream. Essentially, we'd bought sour cream, mediocre cheese and tortillas.
For entrees, we ordered La Hacienda combination ($8.75), red snapper Vera Cruz ($9.25) and turkey mole poblano ($8.50). Prices were low, and portions, large. For many people, those are two strong points in the restaurant's favor.
The Hacienda combination included a beef taco laid over a large quantity of hot yellow rice. Rice steam had made the taco shell limp. Then there were cheese and a large green chili covered with something cakey. At the top of the plate was a small, pleasant, cigar-shaped tamale, and below it, a standard American cheese enchilada. To the side were refried beans topped with a red onion ring and sour cream. Though nothing had character, a big eater could have come away from the table satisfied.
The red snapper was old and overcooked, but steam-table onions, tomatoes and green olives improved it. The turkey mole poblano was not Mexico's famous and lovely dish with an intriguing spiced sauce. The original dish includes almonds, raisin, garlic, cinnamon, pumpkin seeds, coriander and chocolate. The Hacienda's version was bitter institutional meat sauce and chilies, over tough turkey, sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The fish and turkey entrees came with salads, rice, vegetables and corn muffins. Salads were American standard: iceberg lettuce, a cut of pale pink tomato and some sliced American olives, with a sweet, thick dressing. I was willing to argue that the vegetables -- corn, onions, mushy squash and pimento -- were the high point of the meal, but one of my companions argued against praising what comes to the table floating in water and oil. The corn muffins suffered from sweet mealiness.
One of our desserts, the oddly named fried ice cream ($2.50), was a matter of a very large, crisp, cookie-style vessel supporting scoops of vanilla ice cream ribboned with chocolate. Above a sprinkling of spiced mystery crumbs was a covering of Cool Whip that rose in peaks. We preferred the heated pecan pie ($1.50) because its syrupy custard was simple and the pecans over the top were real.
At the time it seemed reasonable to finish with a margarita ($2.95). Most everyone in the room had had one. We sipped. We shook our heads. Just our luck to be most taken with the Slurpee straw. Next: Michael's Riviera Grill
Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, 4840 Belair Road, 488-9447
Hours: Tuesdays to Thursdays and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to midnight.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Mexican food