St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is.
As Alexandra “Alex” Rodriguez tells the story of Hacienda, she cannot separate the restaurant from her late father, Norberto, even though he would not have liked some of the details she chooses to share. Norberto, who is a resident of Tampico, Mexico, immigrated to the United States when he was just sixteen years old, and took the trip alone with the exception of an acquaintance who was on his way to New York. Although Norberto thought he would take the road up east as well, his other expatriate told him the big apple might be too fast for him, handed him $ 10, and told him to 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 would tell him he did not have a formal education, but I think that’s the coolest part,” Rodriguez says. “He’s completely self-taught. He came here all alone with only ten dollars and a” good luck “from his friend. His first job here was on a farm with a dollar a week. I can not imagine how little money. it was, but he did what he had to do for a minute, then found his way to restaurants and worked his way up. ”
Now at the helm of the restaurant her father founded in 1968, Rodriguez can not help but feel a sense of pride in what he has achieved, as well as a commitment to keep his dream alive. It’s a weight – albeit a welcome one – she feels because of Norberto’s significant influence on St. Louis restaurant scene. When he arrived at St. Louis in the early 1960s, Mexican cuisine was not widely available, but he was instrumental in changing it. He slowly started out and opened an American-style breakfast place in downtown Overland, where he gradually added Mexican dishes to the menu here and there. It did not take long for him to develop a fan base, so he expanded both his hours and offerings and turned the daytime hours into a budding Mexican restaurant.
Norberto’s restaurant eventually grew out of the small breakfast place, and as he looked around for larger excavations, he realized that there was enough demand for his Mexican dishes to open a place dedicated solely to the country’s culinary traditions. The restaurant, Hacienda, opened in 1968 just down Woodson Road from its original daytime concept and was an instant success – so much so that he began scouting for another place a handful of years after opening the Overland original. When he came across an old residence that had become a restaurant on Manchester Road in the middle of Rock Hill, he knew he had found his place.
When he opened the current Rock Hill Hacienda in 1977, the area was significantly less developed than it is today. But Norberto had foresight to see what the area could become, and he sold his original location to some family members so he could focus on the new location. As Rodriguez explains, there was just something special about the space that people felt attracted to, probably because of its colorful history – something that everyone who worked there embraced.
“This location was originally a residence owned by a steamboat captain,” Rodriguez says. “It had already been turned into a restaurant when my dad bought it, but if you look around you can see where the exterior walls were and where we added. There’s just so much history here. The staff even think they have “seen ghosts. – there are all these stories about a woman in a purple dress. However, no one has seen her for a while, so maybe she went apart and is at peace.”
Although Rodriguez never even saw any ghosts, 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 fun; when you’re small, your normal is normal. For me, it was normal to have a restaurant, but I know it was very special. I remember being so small and helping to put placemats on. plates – when you’re five, it feels special. We also learned to fold napkins, just such little things. When I got a little bigger, I checked my coat during the holidays and definitely felt like a big kid doing it. ”
Although Rodriguez and her brother somewhere deep down understood that the restaurant was their birthright, they were not convinced it would be their career. Instead, they went on their own roads – Rodriguez to Chicago to study art and her brother to Berklee College of Music in Boston. But when it became clear to Rodriguez about a decade ago that her father needed help, she returned to St. Louis. Louis and has been in charge of the restaurant ever since.
Rodriguez says it has been quite a trip since the takeover, especially with the challenges the last year and a half have presented. She credits her longtime staff for keeping the restaurant running – some of whom have worked there for decades, including the chef, who has been present on the property even before her father owned it.
“We’re joking that he came with the building, because he literally did,” laughs Rodriguez. “He worked in the kitchen of the restaurant that was here before my dad bought it, and he just kept working even after the change. He’s been working in this building since he was seventeen and made all our recipes, and he is here still today. ”
Rodriguez feels that the story of her chef, as well as the stories of her other longtime employees and her family, are the reasons why Hacienda has such a special place in St. Louis. The hearts of Louis guest guests. Although she knows the food is delicious, she also understands that people continue to adorn the restaurant decades after its founding because they feel a connection to the people who work there. These relationships are what have kept the restaurant up through the pandemic-induced closures and transition to implementation, and they continue to sustain her and her staff as they have adapted to the new COVID-19 standard.
Rodriguez believes, however, that good things have come out of the pandemic. Although she unfortunately had to shut down her fast-casual concept, Mayana, she was able to turn 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 little bit of normalcy to the community. She hopes to continue these new ventures while keeping the restaurant stable because she knows how much it means to people – and how much it means to her to preserve the house that her father built.
“I always think of my father,” Rodriguez says. “I always know what Dad did was special; I felt like growing up and I always looked at it from that perspective. I feel honored and grateful to be here and am so proud of my dad – not just that he built this, but because of everything he did.He was self-taught and did this on his own, and I’m honored and grateful that I’m part of protecting this and keeping it going and keep his dream alive. ”
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