The people of Dallas love a good patio.
But until places such as Dragonfly and Fearing's began sculpting refined enclosures and The Londoner found a location set back from the road, most outdoor spaces butted up against parking lots or busy streets. As a result, some of the most popular patios—Primo's and Taco Diner, for example—also smell rather noxious, reeking of auto exhaust.
Although the patio at Hacienda on Henderson overlooks its heavily trafficked namesake avenue and a large parking lot, it is still attractive by Dallas standards: two levels under a pergola, with plants and flat-screen televisions for ambience—nature and nurture, as it were. I sat out there on a warm Friday evening several weeks ago, wondering why only three other tables at this very cool patio were occupied while Capitol Pub, just across the street, was exploding with a happy hour crowd.
Hacienda on Henderson
Empanadas $8 Crispy tacos $7 Spinach quesadillas $9 Chicken enchiladas $9 Camaron a la diabla $16
I had plenty of time to ponder the question: A young waitress burst from the restaurant and passed by without acknowledging my presence. On her return trip, she again failed to look my direction, appearing rather harried despite working the near-empty domain. A second server buzzed by my shoulder, and still no menu, no "I'll be with you in a minute"—not even a hello.
Eventually a different staffer stopped at my table, if only to push the bar's selection of infused tequilas—pineapple, strawberry and habanero mango, all on tap. Now to my mind, good tequila should never be tampered with and cheap tequila should never be consumed, so the idea of a fruit infusion seems a little disturbing. On the plus side, the bar stocks almost 50 tequilas (and a few upscale mezcals) and bartenders shake up a range of specialty cocktails. This is not surprising because Hacienda's owners have long nightlife resumes: Patrick Tetrick and Chris Faulkner also hold a stake in Lotus, an Uptown lounge, while Miles Zuniga backs Slip Inn and Vickery Park.
While this might explain the restaurant's strong focus on liquor, it didn't answer why the service was sporadic or the patio empty. When Hacienda opened in the revered Cuquita's space back in July, the Knox-Henderson crowd nearly spilled over the patio's ledges at happy hour. Three months later, I had the place almost to myself.
On my first visit, I wondered if I'd ever get a chance to eat and later regretted being given that chance. Empanadas had a dense, flaky and somewhat sweet crust—which is fine if you need to balance out certain savory flavors. Unfortunately, there was nothing inside but a glob of mystery meat and bland mushrooms draped in an unpleasant cheese. Before I managed to finish one, my entrée arrived.
Great—I had to decide which one would be better cold: already sorry empanadas or the just arrived tacos.
Didn't matter, actually, because the tacos consisted of ground beef seasoned to a point where gritty, muddy flavors merged. The phrase "I should have gone to Taco Bell" popped into my mind.
Granted, opening chef Mike Dimas split after less than a month, leaving cooking chores to Paul Delgado and Christopher Alexander. So one month in, their kitchen was in chaos, and after three months, they were still working out service issues. Their menu of "cheesy" enchiladas, mac and cheese burritos, and "Disco Dave's" tacos pales in comparison to nearby Café San Miguel, especially when undermined by staff issues. The opening of Park stole some focus from Hacienda. And while all this was going on, The Dallas Morning News handed them the supreme insult of a one-star review. Neighboring restaurateurs began expressing not-so-private concerns about Hacienda's longevity.
All this would call into question the ownership team's successful résumé—except that my second visit suggested they were catching on and making the right changes.
From my perspective, it seemed almost a tale of two restaurants. A pleasant and talkative server approached our table almost before we even sat down, and the plates were far more interesting. Although spinach quesadillas suffered a bit from poor quality cheese, the kitchen buffers the greens with onions and bell peppers. They grill these peppers, so charred spikes of bittersweet, smoky flavor burst forward, and they sauté the onions, lending them a softer, sweeter aspect which adds depth to the spinach. Chicken enchiladas don't skimp on the meat, which has a tender, earthy nature. Diabla shrimp pulls a fine, murky flavor from a chipotle rub, backed by a hint of lime and welcome pricks of pepper. It sits on the best expression of rice I had in three meals at the restaurant and takes fire when touched to a sauce of chile, lime and cilantro—a fireball wrapped in serene sour cream.
This is what you want from a Tex-Mex restaurant with modest aspirations: familiar flavors with a few points of interest. Throw in a great outdoor space and margarita specials (theirs is a $3 deal for happy hour), and it should challenge institutions like Primo's in popularity.
But patrons who suffered through Hacienda's early months are unlikely to return, and the restaurant still needs to work out several problems.
Black beans stood out on my first visit, a lone hint that kitchen staff did indeed understand something about Tex-Mex cooking. On that visit, the bowl presented a grounded, warming character. My last order, however, congealed before it even reached the table. Which brings up another service flaw: On every trip to the place, entrées came out long before appetizers were finished. And while the chips are thin and crisp, they dish out a bland, watery salsa and unimpressive guacamole.
If they continue to tinker and train, by the time patio weather rolls around again, people may forget bad service and one-star reviews. That's really all they can hope for now.
They have the drawing card patio. They have owners experienced in the art of a good pour. On some nights you'll find live entertainment. If not, there are plenty of flat screens around the place, inside and out. Like their predecessor, the kitchen stays open until 2 a.m., making it a potential bar crowd haven. It just took them a little long to understand that when people order a $7 taco plate, they want it to taste like $7 worth of taco.
I'd give them one more shot—but just one. After all, the space is pretty cool.
Hacienda on Henderson 2326 Henderson Ave., 214-515-9990. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m. $$
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