My buddy Joe is standing in the front of the dining room at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant flapping his elbows, trying to sell his son and daughter on the coolness of the Chicken Dance. His kids, as well as the diners at nearby tables, are looking at him like he's nuts.
A Latino musician playing the Chicken Dance on a karaoke machine is instructing a few kids up front, who are actually performing the dance. The rest of a considerable herd of rugrats runs in circles around the dining room doing free-form poultry impressions while waiters balancing steaming trays of Tex-Mex dodge and weave their way through the toddling crowd.
If it happened only once, I might not remark on it. But the Wednesday-through-Saturday-evening entertainment at La Hacienda consists entirely of three songs -- the Macarena, the Chicken Dance and the Barney theme song -- all played on a karaoke machine. If this sounds like some modern update on the workings of Dante's Inferno to you, you probably don't have kids.
Because the point of this musical torture loop is to lure annoying children away from the table. The pied piper at the karaoke machine alternates between teaching the two dances and holding the microphone up to the mouth of some lucky child who gets to sing, "I love you, you love me, we're a happy family..." And then all the kids want to be karaoke stars.
Voilà! Sticky urchins, who only seconds ago were whining that they wanted to go home, are now wholesomely entertained. Better yet, they're concentrated in one avoidable corner of the restaurant. Their tired parents, a burden lifted from their shoulders, smile and laugh and order another round of La Hacienda's delightfully potent margaritas.
Joe and Loreta's kids, Maya (three) and Johnny (five), are new to the restaurant, and they're still a little suspicious of the whole setup. They aren't going to be duped that easily. So we adults drink our tequila slurpees and try to figure out the menu.
My margarita tastes seem to have come full circle in 30 years. I started on the frozen ones when I was a college boy, then graduated to top-shelf premium tequila and expensive orange liqueur "on the rocks" margaritas in my sophisticated thirties. Nowadays, I drink good tequila straight and margaritas frozen with salt.
The frozen margaritas at La Hacienda range between too icy to suck through a straw and halfway melted. But the limeade and mineral flavor of the cocktail is just right. I sample some of Loreta's rocks margarita just to remind myself what they taste like. Yup, just like I remembered them: watery sweet-and-sour mix with lime juice. And no brain freeze.
We decide to start off by sharing a large order of nachos sabrosos. The appetizer is terrific, if bizarre. The nachos are made by spreading chips with refried beans and then decorating them with chopped lettuce, tomato and melted American cheese. Picked jalapeños are served on the side. Once the chips are gone (and there aren't that many of them), there's plenty of garnish left on the plate. I experimentally scoop some up with tortilla chips. It's delicious, sort of like a taco salad with Velveeta dressing. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not.
Maya and Johnny are spying on the musician now and are beginning to suspect that they're missing out on something. They drag Loreta to go see what the other kids are up to. After a while, Loreta returns triumphantly with no kids. Maya and Johnny have been sucked in by the exotic spectacle of a dozen prepubescents waving their arms in unison to the electronic strains of the Macarena.
For dinner, the four of us order the "Mexican mix grilled." (I think they mean Mexican mixed grill, but "Mexican mix grilled" is what it says on the menu.) What comes to the table is an oversize sizzling comal mounded high with grilled beef, chicken, shrimp, quail, onions and other vegetables.
Each diner gets a plate of Spanish rice with a bowl of charro beans and another plate of lettuce, tomato and guacamole on the side. The flour tortillas are homemade and hot off the griddle.
"This fajita meat tastes like soy sauce," Joe observes while I sample the quail. Soy sauce and pineapple juice is one of the most popular fajita marinades in Houston, so I'm sure he's right. But when I taste the beef, I don't detect any pineapple juice. The fajita beef could pass for teriyaki.
There are four grilled quail, but since my date doesn't want hers, I get two. You have to bite the little birds with accuracy to get a nice chunk of meat and avoid the bones. The gamey flavor of the quail is disguised by an overbearing saltiness. It's not soy-sauce salty -- I wonder if the birds were brined too long. But the slight salt excess isn't really a problem as long as there's another gulp of "that frozen concoction" handy.
The shrimp have plenty of grill flavor, and although they're a tad overdone, they disappear quickly. The boneless, skinless, tasteless chicken breasts go uneaten. The four of us are too full to eat any more, and we've barely made it halfway through the pile of meat.
Now, thanks to the peace and quiet provided by the karaoke pied piper, we order another round of margaritas and have a long, leisurely after-dinner chat.
It was Roy Oswalt who tipped me off about La Hacienda during one of those ten-second interviews they do on television during regular-season Astros games.
"Roy Oswalt, favorite restaurant?" asked the announcer as the pitcher's face appeared in a box on the screen. Since the Crawford boxes are now officially referred to as the Landry's Crawford boxes during Astros telecasts, I was sure Tilman Fertitta's empire was going to get a plug. I guessed Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse, which is right down the street from the ballpark.
But to my astonishment, the star pitcher said, "Hacienda, the Mexican restaurant." There are two La Haciendas, one in Cypress and one on Memorial. The Astros press office confirmed that Roy Oswalt resides in the Memorial area during the season. (His off-season home is in Mississippi.) So I paid a total of three visits to the original La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant at Memorial, just west of Dairy Ashford.
The restaurant was established in 1973, and it looks like it may have expanded since then. There are three spacious dining rooms spread out along the front of a strip center. The floors are saltillo tile, the wooden chairs are Spanish colonial-style, and there are murals of Mexico on the walls. Fake rooflines of palm-leaf palapas and red Spanish ceramic roof tiles jut into the room just below the ratty-looking acoustical ceiling. It is vintage 1970s Tex-Mex interior design.
Cheese enchiladas are the item I usually use to judge a Tex-Mex joint. But on my first visit, I determined that I would have to find some other criterion for La Hacienda. Their cheese enchiladas are served in a tomato-based sauce rather than the classic Tex-Mex chili gravy. They taste wrong to me, but maybe I'm prejudiced.
The chile relleno my dining companion sampled on that first foray was outstanding. The batter-fried poblano wasn't the least bit greasy. It was filled with big chunks of tender beef, covered with a chile sauce and topped with gooey mozzarella. Leaning over the table with my knife and fork, I probably ate more of it than she did.
On a lunch visit, I discovered the preferred route for enchilada-lovers: Go for the spectacular chicken enchiladas in verde sauce. The rolled tortillas are extra-thick because there's so much tender chicken inside, and they come swimming in a pool of tart green tomatillo sauce under a white cap of melted cheese.
Thanks to the special lunchtime menu, I got my chicken enchiladas in green sauce for $5 and change. But even though they were just $2, I skipped the lunchtime margaritas.
I couldn't find anybody who knew what Roy Oswalt orders when he eats here. But he has a small child, so maybe he just comes to drink margaritas.
At the end of that visit with my friends and their children, we four adults have packed up the leftovers, paid our bill and finished our drinks, and the kids still haven't returned to the table. So Joe and I walk over to the karaoke area to look for them. I notice a wobble in my stride, as if I were slightly inebriated. I must be getting soft -- I only had two margaritas. But, come to think of it, they were large doubles.
As Joe and I approach the kiddie klatch, the Chicken Dance song is playing again, and cute little Maya is trying to figure out the movements. I lean over and show her how to move her fingers like a beak and her elbows like wings. Then, as the three-year-old and I do the Chicken Dance together, I glance over and notice Joe and my dining companions laughing at me.
Those were definitely some ass-kicking margaritas.
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