Sometimes when I’m deciding whether or not to review a place, I turn to Google, simply to learn a little bit more. When I googled “Hacienda Real,” the Lincoln-based, locally owned chain of Mexican restaurants that opened its third location in Omaha in August, this line popped up inside the box devoted to recent Google reviews: “Their salsa and even their guacamole was a bit too spicy for this white girl.”
Say no more.
It turns out that local guida Alayna on Google is right: the house-made red salsa at Hacienda Real does have a very pleasant kick, thanks to jalapeno along with plenty of fresh herbs. So does the fresh, chunky guacamole. But I’m counting that as a win instead of a drawback.
In fact, almost all food we tried during two recent visits to the bustling spot was colorful, flavorful and, in some cases, served so searingly hot you had to wait a beat before taking a bite.
Every diner begins their experience with a basket of warm tortilla chips (yes, refills are free) along with a complimentary side of that dark red, thin salsa and a warmed, creamy refried bean dip, which I liked quite a bit, too. Try a dip of both on the same chip.
It’s hard to know where to begin on such an enormous menu. The trio platter seemed a smart choice as it allowed us to try the chile colorado, chile verde and chile relleno (yes, the portions are also enormous.) We also went for the tacos al carbon, steak tacos dipped in a spicy tomato sauce. I read later that they’re a popular Tex-Mex dish in Houston, in particular.
I liked the tacos a lot. Soft corn tortillas came stuffed with grilled tomatoes, onions and well-seasoned hunks of skirt steak. Saucy and soft, the tacos come topped with cool queso fresco and plenty of chopped fresh cilantro. Generous servings of seasoned Mexican rice and refried beans, the standard sides that come with most dishes, are served here, too.
The trio platter provides a fun exercise in contrast: spicy pork green chili is excellent, this version made with a tomatillo-based green sauce that has a pleasant kick and some smoke from the roasted chile. But the contrasting chile Colorado is also worth trying, with its super tender pieces of beef sirloin that are slow-simmered in a sauce made with dried red chile. Nestled between the two is a chile relleno made with a soft poblano pepper encased in a flavorful batter and tucked beneath a thick layer of red sauce and sour cream. It’s an incredible amount of food; all of it is good.
The restaurant, formerly an Old Chicago off the corner of 78th and Cass Streets, has been remodeled inside, with various types and heights of seating throughout, including booths and bar tables; new modern light fixtures (which I thought could have been dimmed a notch); and a color palette of dark grays and warm oranges. Service is exceptionally friendly. On our second visit, our server told us it was her first night on the job, and even with a few stumbles, which she apologized for though she did not need to, she was incredibly kind and efficient.
The list of margarita selections at Hacienda Real is long and varied, and we tried a few, though my easy favorite is their jalapeno margarita. Instead of being outright spicy, the drink has a pleasant vegetal note from the raw peppers floating in the mix. Matthew tried the Jalisco Patron margarita and added one of the eleven fruit flavors a diner can add into the drink; the mango he decided on was another good choice.
The one dish we tried that didn’t sail through to the finish was the queso fundido, essentially a plate of molten Monterey jack cheese, studded with chorizo, tomatoes and sliced scallion. While the first dip of a chip into the cheese is great, hot and gooey, our plate quickly solidified into a solid mass as it cooled. It would be better if it had a texture closer to fondue or creamier queso, or if it had been served, like some of the other dishes, in a hot receptacle to keep the cheese soft.
Speaking of hot receptacles, the dishes we had another evening both came served, literally, sizzling hot.
The mixed fajita platter is heavy on sauteed peppers and onions but also includes plenty of seasoned chicken, beef and, in our case, shrimp, which we had instead of pork for an additional dollar. If you are a fan of fajitas, this is a great opportunity to stack the small, piping hot tortillas with plenty of meat and vegetables and all the toppings, which across the board at Hacienda Real are fresh and inviting.
I’d spotted the moleajete de mariscos on our first visit to Hacienda Real and, in an adventurous mood, decided to order it. At $24.99, it’s one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, and here’s why: it’s a sizzling pile of shrimp, octopus, crab legs, tilapia and clams along with a variety of vegetables all served in an oversized Mexican mortar made of lava stone.
I had to wait a solid minute before digging into the bubbling hot dish, but once I did I found seafood nicely seasoned and well cooked. One note of caution if you do order this dish: take the seafood out of the moleajete once you start eating, otherwise, it gets overcooked as you get deeper into the bowl. I’d also recommend Hacienda Real add a seafood cracker to the lineup of utensils they provide, as crab legs are a chore to eat without one.
I like Hacienda Real. It’s a place I think could fill the hole left by the impending closure of Rivera’s, another of my Omaha favorite Mexican spots.
There’s plenty of home-cooked, warming food here, plus great margaritas and a few much appreciated adventurous moments, for those who care to take a closer look.
425 N. 78th St.
Hours: Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.