190220HACIENDAREAL

Nikki Bolka, a member of The Gazette’s restaurant review team The Four Dishes, ordered this molcajete real entree during a recent trip to Hacienda Real in Janesville. The dish featured charred steak, shrimp, chorizo and chicken, all of which was topped with grilled green onions and a thick cactus leaf.

JANESVILLE

This has been such a winter of extremes. The fog was so heavy the evening we met to go out together that we dared not go out of town.

At Hacienda Real, we found our old favorites along with some wonderful surprises on the new menu. As much as I love Mexican food, I get pretty tired of the same old thing at every restaurant.

I can dine happily on chips and salsa with a nice margarita to wash it down. And I like a traditional lime margarita over ice. Hacienda’s medium is more than enough, and it does the job ($9.99).

Helene started to order a margarita, but then something caught her eye from the new menu—the cantarito ($5.99). Served in a clay “glass” with seasoned salt along the rim, this light tequila drink had grapefruit juice, a hint of soda and other citrus juices, plus a large slice of orange on the rim. Lightly carbonated, the grapefruit juice took the sting out of the tequila.

Nikki ordered a big glass of milky, fragrant horchata ($2.75) and sipped it slowly, saving some for her meal in case she needed to counteract some spiciness.

We took our time reading the menu and listening to the traditional music. I love that Hacienda Real keeps the music with the restaurant’s culture. I also loved the interior design, as shades of orange, turquoise and yellow give the place a happy atmosphere. You truly feel like you are in a small-town zocalo.

Hacienda Real, which opened in 1996, is owned by Salvador Hernandez. Incidentally, Salvador’s two brothers also own their own Mexican restaurants.

At Hacienda Real, there is a separate lounge area outfitted with an enormous bar, several booths and video poker machines for gambling enthusiasts. I had no idea this area was here and, having waited a bit for a table on busy Friday nights, this knowledge could be handy in the future.

When I saw that the restaurant serves molcajete dishes, I was hoping someone would order one. We love the visual of the big piping-hot stone bowl at the table as it just adds to the ambience. Hacienda Real has several choices now, so I will have to go back and try one.

Nikki did not need much persuading to try the molcajete real ($17.99). The steaming dish was filled with charred steak, shrimp, chorizo and chicken, all of which was topped with grilled green onions and a thick cactus leaf. It also came with a side of rice, beans and corn tortillas.

Nikki also ordered an a la carte serving of taco de lengua ($2.99) for us to share. We love sharing our meals with each other, but Jennifer really had to ask herself…”Tongue??” In the end, she tried it and liked it. So did Helene, but I took a pass (I’m such a wimp).

The tongue meat was cubed and served with a generous handful of fresh cilantro and diced raw onions on a corn tortilla. The meat was flavorful and quite good, tasting like beef—or so I was told. Our server brought a special hot salsa to go with the dish, and for those brave enough to try it, it was a real treat.

After changing my mind three times, I decided on the beef chilaquiles Mexicanos ($8.99). A note on the menu warned me the dish was spicy, and while the chunks of beef were melt-in-the-mouth tender, the dish itself was just shy of too hot.

There are many regional variations to this dish, including chicken or beef and green or red sauce. This one was similar to a beef stew with some tortillas baked in and lots of red sauce. I brought home plenty of leftovers and toned it down with sour cream.

Enchiladas are one of Jennifer’s go-to Mexican dishes, so she just had to try the enchiladas ranchero ($8.99). Three corn tortillas were stuffed with cheese and topped with an abundance of shredded white meat chicken, and then cooked with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers and covered with enchilada sauce. The meal was bursting with flavor, and Jennifer especially enjoyed the smoky, rich taste of the red enchilada sauce.

The dish also was served with rice and beans, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. With too much food for one sitting, Jennifer reheated her leftovers for a delicious lunch the next day.

Helene opted for Chavita’s Special ($13.99) from the seafood section. The dish featured five to six grilled shrimp sitting atop grilled tilapia. The cream sauce was like a very thin roux with a hint of cheese, and it complemented the grilled flavors of the fish. Served with lettuce, rice, a slice of tomato and a perfectly ripe avocado half, the plate was truly delicious.

We didn’t even look at dessert, for which I am now sorry. Who knows what we might have missed? Hacienda Real’s new menu truly is intriguing, and I will go back to sample more dishes in the future.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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