When my sister and brother-in-law visit, we often end up in a Mexican restaurant. Michael's mother grew up in Arizona and practically weaned her children on homemade tortillas and salsas, and he's taught us to appreciate these spicy specialties, too. So last week when they came to Ocean City, we headed to La Hacienda.
Located in a tiny strip shopping center on the bay side of Coastal Highway at 80th Street, La Hacienda has a pleasant if somewhat sterile atmosphere. The music is strictly American elevator pop, and it's sometimes drowned out by the televisions playing at the bars. The vaulted wooden ceilings and large windows are draped with serapes, masks and Mexican travel posters. The place is attractive without trying too hard to seem authentic.
We ordered a pitcher of La Hacienda's frozen margaritas for $15.25. (A single glass is $4.50, and we got at least six glasses from the pitcher, so it's a good deal). The beverage was a near perfect blend of the sour and sweet flavors that make up a margarita. Quite good.
When our appetizers arrived, we began to wonder if the menu had made promises the kitchen couldn't keep.
The gazpacho ($3.50), for example, was supposed to have "zesty spices." They weren't detectable in the traditional chilled vegetable soup, which was also oily and thin. The nacho supreme ($7.50) wasn't exactly "stacked high" with toppings, either, and the shredded cheese tasted like bland processed "cheese food" rather than the genuine article.
On the other hand, the hearty servings of chili con queso dip ($5.95) and bean dip ($4.50) were hot, spicy and delicious. Both dips steamed with jalapeno flavor -- "not for spice wimps," said my delighted brother-in-law.
Our entrees arrived on huge platters, each swimming in a sea of beans, cheese and salsa. The chimichanga ($10.25) was a deep-fried version of the deluxe chicken burrito ($10.45). Each was the size of a small loaf of bread and featured discernible chunks of chicken breast, cheese, lettuce and tomato.
The shrimp fajitas ($16.95) featured 12 shrimp, three flour tortillas and two plates of onion, green pepper, tomato, beans, sour cream, excellent guacamole, cheese, salsa and lettuce. There was so much filling we wished for more tortillas, but chose not to pay extra for them.
The Pueblo combo ($12.50) offered two enchiladas, one cheese and one beef, with beans and rice. Like all the entrees, our only real complaint with the combo was that it arrived at the table with its contents all mixed together; we prefer being able to identify and savor the separate elements of a meal.
Every dish we tried at La Hacienda was huge. In addition, our waitress promptly replaced the complimentary tortilla chips and salsa rojo each time we scarfed it down. We weren't really sorry to learn that the restaurant doesn't offer dessert. If you have a sweet tooth -- and any room in your stomach -- swing into the frozen yogurt shop at the end of the block to finish off your meal.
80th Street and Coastal Highway, 524-8080.
Hours: Open for dinner 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of eight or more.
Features: Mexican food.