La Hacienda de Benton — 23 years and still going strong
How? The place is garish, loud, colorful and simply a fun place to go to dinner. The aforementioned Nativity scene is what greets diners in December, and that’s only what people see when they stroll through the brightly-colored front doors and enter the waiting area. Indeed, the real party is in the impressively large dining area — which is large enough so that a table is almost always available regardless of how crowded the place is.
There are times when a restaurant’s atmosphere is substantially better than the food available and vice-versa. Fortunately for Benton residents, La Hacienda features great food and an atmosphere that is certainly unique to this town. The restaurant has been in Benton since 1988 and is well-established in Benton. There’s a reason for that — it’s a great restaurant and those tend to grow as others fail.
We’ll start off talking about the food. For some reason, I’ve always had good luck judging the quality of a restaurant by its tamales. La Hacienda passes that test with flying colors in that the tamales are stuffed with slow-simmered, shredded pork and the masa is thick enough to add texture and a satisfying corn flavor, but it’s not dry (an unfortunate mistake made by a lot of Mexican restaurants). The staff at La Hacienda has clearly spent a lot of time perfecting such a simple dish in that they are complex in flavor and not simply served one way — get them with a red sauce or covered with the restaurants outstanding white cheese dip. By the way, three tamales cost less than $5 and are filling enough to make a decent meal. Grab the appetizer if you’re not overly hungry (or saving room for dessert — and you will want dessert) or the meal with refried beans and rice if you’d like.
Tamales aren’t the only things that are the products of a lot of care and study. You’ve got traditional meals that are of the type one might expect, but the tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas, etc. are brimming with fresh ingredients and a comforting twist or two. Steak fajitas, for example, are a heck of a lot more than some beef or chicken with a few vegetables added in for color — there’s a lot of food there and the meat mingles with the peppers and onions very pleasantly.
You’ll find a few unique items, too. Fish tacos (a bit of a surprise in Benton), a shrimp quesadilla and a more uncommon dish (primarily strips of steak marinated with spices and vegetables) are tasty and sure to be appreciated by people looking for quality meals that are a bit out of the ordinary.
Of course, what is a Mexican restaurant without great chips and salsa? La Hacienda serves up warm, crisp tortilla chips with a salsa that’s got an intriguing mix of sweetness and fire to it. For a real treat, get the white cheese dip which is spiced up with chunks of jalapeno peppers. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of overly hot foods — the jalapenos provide some complexity and flavor, but the white cheese dip is considerably mild. Still, there’s enough heat in there to insure just a bit of a kick.
Now, here’s where you’ll want to save room for dessert — the flan is simply outstanding. Yes, it’s a caramel custard as one might expect, but it’s also served up with a dollop of whipped cream, a cherry and a bit of chocolate sauce that mixes well with the caramel that’s flowing all over the oversized plate on which the dessert is served. My wife and I have stopped in for the flan alone on a couple of occasions — it really is that good.
As for the atmosphere, it’s casual and festive. Bright, striking colors abound and the place is large enough to pack in a lot of diners who add to the comfortably loud din of the place. A mariachi band is often wandering through the place and charming diners with traditional numbers as well as some more intriguing ones such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” If you don’t care for mariachi bands, don’t fret — it’s a big restaurant and the band doesn’t linger around patrons who aren’t interested.
Let’s not forget that La Hacienda was one of the first restaurants in Benton — the county seat of dry Saline County, mind you — that offered a full bar. If you want a beer, a margarita or even a pretty good mojito, they’ve got you covered.
As casual and relaxed as the atmosphere is, the wait staff is all business. They tend to take a “tag team” approach over there — if you’re low on your drink, for example, someone will show up and take care of. You don’t have a designated waiter or waitress who may or may not show up, see. The wait staff is friendly, attentive and siDevomply complete and already great dining experience. And, by the way, it doesn’t matter if you’re drinking a Coca-Cola, a glass of water or the most expensive drink in the place — they look after their customers.
La Hacienda is, indeed, a great restaurant. The food is great, the atmosphere is inviting, the staff is friendly and the prices are very reasonable. You could do a lot worse in this town and would be hard-pressed to do substantially better.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.