In 1990, four young brothers working in a San Diego kitchen loaded up their car and headed east to seek their fortune in Hot Springs. Ignacio Alvarez, 22 at the time, had never heard of the state, and neither he nor his brothers spoke more than a few words of English. But their brother-in-law, who worked on a tree farm near Hot Springs, sensed an opportunity.
"He said, 'Hey, let's open a restaurant here. There's nothing here.' And I said, 'Yeah, why not?' "
Sitting in a booth at the Little Rock branch of La Hacienda that he's operated for the past 20 years, Alvarez remembered the trip and smiled. "It was an amazing experience. No English — nothing. We don't have GPS. We got a map, and my brother said, 'Look: Arkansas.' " He stabbed a finger on the tabletop to illustrate. "We put the line on the map. He said, 'Get on Highway 40, and don't get off.' We said, 'OK.' " And with that, La Hacienda was born.
Alvarez's brother-in-law, Luis Oseguera, must possess remarkable powers of persuasion, because the rest of the family soon followed from Mexico. Four more brothers, four sisters and their mother journeyed north from their hometown of Cotija, in Michoacán — a verdant state on the south-central Pacific coast sometimes called "the soul of Mexico" — to pitch in. None of them had experience in the restaurant business, Alvarez said.
"I remember somebody at a table asking for a spoon. I go tell my brother-in-law, 'Hey, I don't know what he wants.' He explained to us, 'This is the spoon, this is the fork, this is the knife.' That's when we started learning.
"We try to do the best we can, you know? When we opened in Hot Springs, the customers were very patient for us. Because, when I was in Hot Springs, there were no Mexicans around. We're talking about 1990. ... You know, we did not communicate very good. But my brother-in-law, he's running everywhere trying to explain to people."
In 1996, with six years of trial-by-fire experience under their belts, Alvarez and two of his brothers moved to Little Rock to open a second Hacienda on Rebsamen Park Road. A few months later, they found a larger building on Cantrell Road that previously housed a Pizza Hut. Alvarez has been there ever since, turning out plates that have become staples for a generation of Little Rock residents — silky queso and succulent carnitas, pillowy Spanish rice and impossibly rich refried beans. Everything is served with bottomless bowls of not one but three salsas: an uncommonly delicious pico de gallo (the fresca), a sweet stew of tomatoes and onions (the dulce) and a fiery green concoction (the verde) that begs to be swirled into the cheese dip. The salsa verde is composed of "tomatillos, and green jalapenos, and Mom's secret," Alvarez said with a laugh.
According to Alvarez, his mother's presence in the early years exerted a lasting influence on most dishes La Hacienda serves today. "She said, 'Any kind of food you make — just do it with love.' And she put the little spices on it, to make it close to Michoacán food."
Which raises a question — how exactly do you classify La Hacienda's fare? With its chimichangas and crispy tacos, much of the menu sounds like fairly standard issue Tex-Mex, but the food is too vibrant for the label; there's no school bus-colored nacho cheese or Hormel chili to be seen. On the other hand, you won't see tripe or lengua, either. It's a menu that was originally tailored around Southern conceptions of what "Mexican food" means, but with an eye toward something fresher and truer to form — not so much Americanized Mexican as a sort of re-Mexicanized Tex-Mex, maybe.
Whatever it is, it works. In addition to the restaurant in Riverdale, the Hot Springs location is still around and a third Hacienda operates in Benton. All are still family-owned, though each runs essentially independently of the others. (An Alvarez brother also operates another Michoacán-accented restaurant in downtown Little Rock, Cotijas, which is open for lunch on weekdays only.) Now, Alvarez said, of the 15 employees at the Cantrell Road La Hacienda, only one is a member of his family. Longtime patrons know, though, that his workers tend to stick around.
"We try to keep them. ... I try to teach my employees, because they're the same as [me] when I started. They don't speak very good English. I do everything for those guys — to help with the doctor, the bank, to be their driver. They need somebody to help. And that's why they're still here — because I'm worried for those guys. And I worry for their families — in Mexico, in Guatemala. We take care of those, too."
Despite its evident success, the small empire forged by the Alvarez family has had its setbacks along the way. The Central Arkansas faithful will remember a Conway La Hacienda and another in West Little Rock, both since closed. The issue was quality control, Ignacio said. He and his brothers are fiercely protective of the brand they've established.
"We try to keep the same reputation we have here, with the service and the food. That is the most important for us. That's why we don't open too many restaurants. ... We got a lot of complaints from the customers from Conway. 'The food is not good, the service is not good.' We go and check a couple times, and we decide to close." The Chenal Parkway location, he said, was "the same deal. We gave it to guys working here, and they did a great job when they start. But later — they don't care, and we say, 'No.' "
The family wants to return to Conway eventually, and eventually expand to points beyond. "We're waiting for the opportunity to open another one," Alvarez said. "I've got three sons right now in college, at U of A — maybe they'll start to do it."
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