Boonies kitsch

Theme-soaked La Hacienda Ranch is worth the drive to Frisco

You don't have to travel far to wallow in a good, thick sludging of theme restaurateuring. Downtown offers the always loudly entertaining Planet Hollywood in the West End, while Canyon Cafe covers the north with its slick Southwestern motif. And for a good choke on an exceptionally rich example of gooey theme-driven dining decor, there's always the Rain Forest Cafe in Grapevine.

But why hang around Dallas or the mid-cities when you can point your car north and drive miles and miles for a heartily amusing example of dining kitsch? Gas is cheap, so now is the time to drive yourself silly in pursuit of the sillier.

And I mean silly. But this is precisely why La Hacienda Ranch is worth the mileage. Because this overstuffed kitsch closet isn't saddled with a strenuously clever concept, pompous social missions, or cheesy star idolatry. It's a soft, in-your-face, tongue-in-cheek ranch arcade that's not only comfortable, its food actually holds its own.

La Hacienda is a large hunting lodge-ranch combo fashioned from fully barked logs with a porch railing constructed from tree branches. Coin-operated toy horses sit opposite the door, which is near a glassed-in tortilla bakery. A huge stuffed brown bear standing on its rear legs greets diners in the entrance with a plaque around its neck that says "do not touch," a warning gooey-fingered ranch kiddies compulsively ignore. In the foyer is a vaulted ceiling hung with a teepee chandelier. Mounted trophies of pheasant, deer, steer, buffalo, and moose, along with a stuffed white-tailed deer butt, dot the walls. A trio of bar seats are saddles on pedestals.

There's also a waiting room off to the side entrance dubbed the "liars den" with a TV that seems to show nothing but John Wayne movies. And red-paned dining room windows, from which dangle electric rustic lanterns, look out onto a large porch, which in turn looks out over stretches of undeveloped North Texas landscape. You can almost hear cozy residential tracts with names like "Feeding Trough Cove" or "Gelding Gulch" taking shape in the distance.

Billed as a Mexican restaurant-steak house, La Hacienda Ranch has a fairly decent, if unspectacular, menu. Wild boar quesadillas are loaded with jack cheese, fresh green chilies, tomato, onion, and sweetly rich char-grilled South Texas wild boar.

But while the steaks were fresh, juicy, and flawlessly prepared, they seemed void of even a hint of the overwhelming richness and flavor complexity of better beef. The trail boss favorite rib eye, a 16-oz. bone-in steak, had all of the texture and tenderness of a better cut, but almost none of the lusty zeal. A side of grilled veggies--zucchini, yellow squash, and peppers--had perceptible fresh crispness and didn't suffer from oiliness. The double eagle filet, a 10-oz. center-cut tenderloin, had a bitter grill crust bite while lacking deep meat flavor.

La Hacienda's fish fared better. Farm-raised catfish (do they live in rivers anymore?), a lightly floured and seasoned grilled filet, was moist, flaky and flush with mildly sweet muddy flavors. A side of warm tomatilla-cheese sauce for dipping punched it up with a sharp, tangy spark. Unfortunately, the side of grilled veggies, which included broccoli and cauliflower in addition to zucchini and yellow squash, was mushy, oily, and a bit too singed.

Tex-Mex items were a decidedly mixed bag. Texas torpedoes, battered and fried jalapenos stuffed with chicken or cheese, had a desperately boring flour coating. Plus, the chicken torpedoes were replete with stringy, dried meat, while the cheese versions didn't seem to have much goo.

Garcia, a Tex-Mex sampler plate, merged the desperately dull with the sublime. Included was a tostada gooped with a rich, lively guacamole; a heartily creamy splotch of refried beans; overcooked Mexican rice; a mushy, tasteless soft cheese taco; a flavorful bean chalupa; and a delicious cheese enchilada topped with chili. The inconsistency was a bit irritating, but the combo proved satisfying overall.

Chuck wagon cherry cobbler, a crumble crust and cherries melded with a wild cherry brandy butter sauce and a vanilla ice cream cap, was a dazzling, hearty finish to this ranchero carnival--despite a preponderance of mushy but intensely flavored fruit.

Mariano Martinez, the self-proclaimed inventor of the frozen margarita who launched Mariano's some 28 years ago in the Old Town Shopping Center on Greenville Avenue, opened La Hacienda Ranch in November 1993. Other partners in the Frisco venture include Dallas restaurant luminaries Gene Street, David Franklin (On the Border, Texas Land & Cattle Co.), Dale Wamstad (Del Frisco) and Pat Snuffer (Snuffer's restaurant-taverns).

Martinez opened a larger, more upscale La Hacienda Ranch in Colleyville in August with a different roster of partners and has plans to open at least one additional metroplex location plus restaurants in San Antonio and Austin. David Pencsak, vice president of operations, says one reason for La Hacienda's phenomenal success is that it's a destination venue. "People came to us," he says. "What's so neat about the concept is what people draw from their memories...It takes a little piece of somebody's life that they can relate to whether it be in Colorado, Wyoming, or Texas."

And he may be right. If anyone had told me I'd enjoy dining in a large, dark log cabin with a stuffed largemouth bass hanging overhead while Charlie Rich sang "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," I'd have told that someone to stuff their butt and mount it on the wall next to a deer head trophy.

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