St. Louis Standards: Mexican Hacienda Fare Connects It to Society | Food and drink | St. Louis | Saint Louis news and events
St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is.
When Alexandra “Alex” Rodriguez tells Hacienda’s story, she couldn’t separate the restaurant from her late father Norberto, though he would have hated some of the details she chose to share. Norberto, born in Tampico, Mexico, immigrated to the United States when he was just sixteen, making the trip alone to save an acquaintance bound for New York. Although Norberto thought he’d make the way east as well, his fellow entrant told him the Big Apple might be too fast for him, handed him $10 and said he should try St. Louis instead. With no formal education and no English, Norberto accepted the money and was determined to find out.
“He always hated that I shared that he had no formal education, but I think that’s the coolest part,” Rodriguez says. “He was completely self-taught. He came here on his own with only ten bucks and ‘good luck’ from his friend. It was his first job here on a farm making one dollar a week. I can’t even imagine how little money that was, but he did What he had to do for a minute, then find his way to restaurants and make his way up.”
Now at the helm of the restaurant her father founded in 1968, Rodriguez can’t help but feel proud of what he’s accomplished, as well as a commitment to keeping his dream alive. It’s a weight – albeit a welcome one – that you feel due to Norberto’s huge impact on St. Louis’ dining scene. When he arrived in St. Louis in the early 1960s, Mexican cuisine was not widely available, but he was instrumental in changing that. Starting slowly, he opened an American-style breakfast spot in downtown Overland, gradually adding Mexican dishes to the menu here and there. It didn’t take long for him to develop a following, so he expanded his hours and offerings, turning the daytime venue into a fledgling Mexican restaurant.
Eventually Norberto outgrew the small breakfast spot, and as he searched around for larger digs, he realized there was enough demand for his Mexican dishes to open a place dedicated solely to the country’s culinary traditions. This restaurant, Hacienda, opened in 1968 down Woodson Road from its original daytime concept, and was an instant success – so much so that it began looking for a second location a few years after the Overland original opened. When he found an old tenement-turned-restaurant on Manchester Road in the middle of Rock Hill, he knew he had found his place.
When the current Rock Hill Hacienda opened in 1977, the area was significantly less developed than it is today. However, Norberto had the insight to see what the area could become, and sold his original location to some family members so he could focus on the new location. As Rodriguez explains, there was something special about the space that people felt drawn to, likely due to its colorful history—something that everyone who worked there embraced.
“This site was originally a residence owned by a steamboat captain,” Rodriguez says. “It was actually converted into a restaurant when my dad bought it, but if you look around you can tell where the exterior walls are and where we added. There’s a lot of history here. Staff think they’ve seen ghosts – there are all these stories about a woman in a purple dress. No one’s seen her since period, so she may have parted ways and is at rest.”
Although Rodriguez has never seen a ghost herself, she and her brother John have their own stories about the restaurant they grew up in.
“We were there the whole time,” Rodriguez says. “It’s funny; when you’re young it’s your normal nature. To me, owning a restaurant was normal to me, but I know it was definitely something special. I remember being very young and helping put the placemats on the plates – when you were five years old , that feels special. We also learned how to fold napkins, just little things like that. When I got a little older, I checked the coat over during the holidays and definitely felt like a big kid doing it.”
Although Rodriguez and her brother understood somewhere deep down that restaurant was their birthright, they weren’t convinced that this would be their profession. Instead, they went on their own paths – Rodriguez to Chicago for art school and her brother to Berklee College of Music in Boston. However, when it became clear to Rodriguez about a decade ago that her father needed help, she returned to St. Louis and has been in charge of the restaurant ever since.
Rodriguez says it’s been a long journey since taking on the job, especially with the challenges he’s presented in the past year and a half. She credits her old employees with keeping the restaurant going—some of whom have worked there for decades, including the kitchen manager, who was present on the property even before her father owned it.
“We’re joking that he came with the building, because he literally did,” Rodriguez laughs. “He worked in the kitchen of the restaurant that was here before my dad bought it, and has been working even after the change. He has worked in this building since he was seventeen making all of our recipes, and he is still here today.”
Rodriguez feels that the story of her kitchen manager as well as those of her other longtime employees and family are the reasons Hacienda has such a special place in the hearts of St. Louis diners. Although she knows the food is delicious, she also realizes that people continue to patronize the restaurant decades after it was founded because they feel a connection with the people who work there. It is these relationships that have supported the restaurant through the pandemic-induced shutdowns and turnaround, and continue to support them and their staff as they adapt to the new COVID-19 naturally.
However, Rodriguez believes that there are good things that have resulted from this pandemic. Although she unfortunately had to shut down her fast casual concept, Mayana, she was able to convert the former restaurant’s food truck into a hacienda on wheels. Between that and the Hacienda catering truck, she and her team were able to not only keep the restaurant afloat, but spread joy and a bit of normalcy in the community. She hopes to continue these new projects while keeping the restaurant stable because she knows how much that means to people – and how much it means to her to maintain the house that her father built.
“I always think of my father,” Rodriguez says. “I’ve always known what my dad did was something special; I felt that when I grew up, and I’ve always looked at him from that perspective. I feel so proud and grateful to be here and I’m so proud of my dad – not just because he built this, but because of all he’s done. He taught himself. himself and did it on his own, and I am proud and grateful to be part of protecting and preserving this and keeping his dream alive.”
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