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.

Water Street Seafood Company claims to serve the best seafood in the area. But I developed grave doubts about this bold assertion after I was served my first Water Street Bloody Mary. Not that the drink was bad. On the contrary, it was among the best Bloody Marys I've had in quite a while. It had a rich tomato taste and a good spice kick, and it wasn't tortured by an overzealous application of Worcestershire sauce.

It was the accessories that had me perplexed. Not only did this bright red drink hold a long stalk of celery, it had a cocktail pick piercing a single shrimp with, of all things, a maraschino cherry.

Now my palate may have undergone irreversible damage over the years from various forms of culinary abuse. But for the life of me, I fail to see where workable complementary or contrasting flavors exist between a maraschino cherry and a Bloody Mary, let alone a peel-and-eat shrimp. I admit, however, that I could be blind to the potent harmonizing forces inherent in a good splash of vodka. In days when I used to sample these cherries from glasses of spent highballs the morning after my parents hosted a party, I thought these loudly colored fruits were fabricated by the same people who made Pez candy.

Fortunately, this is the only recipe on the Water Street menu that seems to call for little red cocktail bombs. The rest is standard corporate (this Corpus Christi-based firm has nine locations, all in Texas) water fare. Not that a fair bit of it isn't good. The gulf oysters were fresh and supple. But one order was void of rich sea flavor, while another was swimming in fresh taste. Not that this is much of a complaint. The things are so cheap ($3.25 for a half-dozen), it's no big deal to play hit-and-miss with flavors.

The fried calamari, however, was a complete non-starter starter. With a bland, doughy deep-fried coating, these bits of squid had pepper heat but little else. A red horseradish dip made from sour cream, red bell pepper, and cayenne did little to rescue this plate of tentacled eats.

Caldo Xochitl, a Mexican chicken soup, proved a heartily spectacular starter, however. With rice, tomato, carrot, celery, onion, avocado, garbanzo beans, and shredded and chunked chicken, topped with pico de gallo, this lushly rich soup had a clean Southwestern flavor deftly polished with fresh basil and cilantro.

Water Street's fish selections carry through with clean, fresh flavors. Mesquite grilled mahi-mahi was flaky, moist, and supple, with a refreshing mild taste left to fend for itself because of a sparse preparation that allowed the sea flavors to peek through. In addition to mesquite grilling, Water Street's fish can be ordered sauteed, blackened, broiled, or fried.

Crawfish-stuffed chicken, however, sank under the weight of its own recipe. Stuffed with pepper jack cheese, a blend of peppers, fresh basil, bacon, and crawfish tails, this juicy, tender breast of chicken topped with a heavy cream cilantro sauce laced with pecans was irreparably muddled by the roster of rich flavors competing for palate space. This collection of tastes and textures didn't necessarily clash; it just didn't meld. It's one of those preparations that could benefit from a rule applicable to almost any creative endeavor: "when in doubt, white out."

Other than the fresh fish, the best item tried was Water Street's shrimp enchilada--a red corn tortilla filled with Monterey Jack and pepper Jack cheeses and topped with diced tomato, black olive, red onion, scallions, white onion, and a cumin-infused green chili "special sauce." This Mexican specialty was loaded with sweet shrimp and full, savory flavors brandishing a sound pepper kick. But a side of penne pasta was pasted with a pepper cream sauce that deadened the palate with a filmy viscosity.

The shrimp sandwich was another droll number. A tall scoop of shrimp, bound with a lemon mustard cream sauce, was plopped on a thin onion roll. Nothing cut through; every bite was a watery wonder.

Water Street's decor is an odd combination of cool colors, industrial touches, and plastic sea things done in terrifying casino hues. Anchored by a terra cotta concrete floor, the dining areas are divided by mauve cinder block walls holding frosted glass murals with fish silhouettes. Plastic replicas of salmon, tuna, and other fish dangle in spaces created by the brickwork. From the black ceiling with exposed insulation and steel beams hang these aqua fish with red and yellow swirling stripes and flowing fins. Bright bottom fish cling to the salmon colored acoustical tile bar ceiling like psychedelic slugs.

This Lewisville location is the second Water Street in the metroplex (Fort Worth opened in 1991), and the third in the chain--owned by San Antonio native Brad Loam--to open in partnership with Luby's Cafeterias after the companies merged in 1996. An Austin location opened just this week.

Water Street won't knock your sea socks off. But if you take it for what it is--a casual place to get a fresh, often tasty plate of food--you'll be in for more than a few pleasant surprises, maraschino cherries excepted.

La Hacienda Ranch. Two locations: 4110 Preston, Frisco, (972) 335-2232; 5250 Texas 121, Colleyville (817) 318-7500. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday.

Water Street Seafood Company. Two locations: 1640 S. Stemmons Freeway, Lewisville, (972) 353-3739; 1540 University, No. 120, Fort Worth. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday.

La Hacienda Ranch:
Texas torpedoes $6.99
Wild boar quesadillas $6.99
Garcia $7.99
Rib eye $18.99
Double eagle filet $18.99
Catfish $10.99
Cherry cobbler $4.99

Water Street Seafood Company:
Gulf oysters $3.25/half-dozen
Caldo Xochitl $3.75
Mesquite-grilled mahi-mahi $14.99
Crawfish chicken $12.50
Shrimp enchiladas $10.95

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