Though this reviewer has always wanted to take a jaunt to Mexico, we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. Maybe we’ve seen one too many bad movies — potboilers featuring tourists in shorts and knee socks, cameras dangling around their necks, whining “You can’t do this to me! I’m an American citizen!” as they’re carted off to Mexican prison. There’s a certain Norte Americano narcissism to that kind of thinking, we know. We won’t take a trip south of the border for fear the locals will — as our grandma used to say — be studying us.
Until we can get over our hang-ups, we’ll just have to placate ourselves the same way we do for everything else: with food. Luckily, Little Rock has become something a hub for good, authentic Mexican grub in recent years, with several family-run operations springing up. Like everyone else, we’ve got our favorites.
To those, however, we’ll have to add one more: La Hacienda West. A welcome addition to the chain-restaurant wasteland surrounding the Chenal Parkway/Markham intersection — the fifth in the La Hacienda chain — LHW is a great place to score some fast, tasty Mexican food, with a big menu featuring a little something for everyone.
The decor is definitely much improved over past restaurants that occupied the space. The last time we darkened the door, back when it was home to Rock Town Grill, the strip-mall storefront was something approximating the Batcave, with dreary colors, scrubbed concrete floors, and a ceiling so high you could launch pop-ups for Little League baseball practice.
The La Hacienda folks have gone a long way toward brightening things up, painting the walls a bright yellow, bringing down that mile-high ceiling a bit with swaths of fabric, and breaking up the room a bit with little faux-adobe dividers. The result is homey and cheerful, the perfect complement to a meal with family.
When it came time to order, we mostly played it safe, opting for old favorites we know and love from other Mexican joints. Unlike many of those places, however, La Hacienda’s menu hides some true oddities that you probably can’t get anywhere this side of Baseline Road — like higado encebollado (grilled beef liver with onions and Mexican spices; $8.95) and ensenada fish tacos (breaded whitefish, served on tortillas with white sauce and lime; $9.95).
Of the things we did sample over the course of several visits, one of the best was the Queso Fundido with shrimp ($6.95). A plate of stringy flame cheese mixed with Mexican sausage, jalapenos and big grilled shrimp, it was a near-entree-sized treat when spooned over tortillas with a little of La Hacienda’s sweet salsa.
Another standout was the La Hacienda Especial ($8.95) — five crunchy taquitos stuffed with beef, then covered in sour cream, tomatoes, cheese, lettuce and a chunky, fresh guacamole. Though that sounds like a lot on one plate, the result was actually very good, with the crunch of the taquitos a nice match for the spicy guac.
Not as good, however (or maybe we just didn’t have our mouth set right that day) was the ground beef burrito dinner ($7.95) — a big ol’ burrito, covered in a red sauce. Though the included rice and refried beans were some of the best we’ve ever had (this common side dish gets short shrift — depending on how it’s cooked, it can be either as dull as dishwater, or a tasty treat) the burrito was rather bland, with a thick tortilla wrapper we had to saw at to puncture. Our unimpressive burrito experience was rare enough, however, that we’re willing to chalk it up as a fluke — a moment when the cook should have zigged with the hot sauce instead of zagged.
In short, La Hacienda West has a whole lot more pros than cons. With fast, friendly service, a big menu with enough old faves and oddities to keep you eating something new every time you come in, and a bright decor, we’re sure to be stopping by whenever the urge for some Mexican food strikes in the wilds of West Little Rock.
La Hacienda West
12315 Chenal Parkway
Though we were too stuffed to try any of them, La Hacienda has a nice lineup of traditional Mexican dessert items, including flan, sopapillas with honey, and Nieve Frita (fried strips of dough, sweeted with cinnamon and sugar and served with fried ice cream). We’ll be sure to make room on a future visit.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Inexpensive to moderate prices. All credit cards accepted. Full bar.