The last time I went to La Hacienda (1813 Fordham Blvd), I was 14 and on a field trip for Spanish class, so my memories of the quality its of food are vague. I think it may have been a combination of enjoying the overall heaviness that naturally comes with “Tex-Mex” food, and not being captured enough by the flavor to really force me into going back.

Although La Hacienda has been around for a while, I thought it would be fun to review it — mainly because I think the plethora of Mexican restaurants in Chapel Hill is somewhat hard to sort through, some having the best burritos for example and another having the best queso. Choosing a Mexican restaurant then becomes an art form. My friends wanted to take me to try (again) La Hacienda — the location being an all-around favorite of theirs.

For starters, the ambiance is certainly fun; there was plenty of color and authentic Mexican decoration. It sounds trivial, but I think one’s dining experience is definitely influenced by how much open space there is, as well as a how high or low the ceiling. Either you obtain a sense of comfort or claustrophobia when the place feels too small, your food feeling too big for you and the table. Maybe it’s just me, but when a place feels open and spacious, it also seem a lot cleaner. I found La Hacienda roomy and clean, so the setting was already OK in my book.

The next item on the list for any Mexican restaurant has to be the tortilla chips and salsa. To be honest, I’m not even a huge salsa fan to start with; I find most of them either too spicy or too bland — I usually eat my tortilla chips plain with the occasional dip in the salsa, as horrendous as that might sound. Let me just say this: I ate two bowls of that salsa. It had the perfect hint of spice without sacrificing the flavor of the other ingredients, a phenomenon that is all too common in salsas. The texture and consistency was smooth without being too watery. All in all, the salsa was hands down my favorite part of dinner. We ordered a bowl of white queso to eat with the chips as well. Much like the salsa, the queso showed up to. It was perfectly heavy and guilt inducing. Occasionally you would find small chunks of cheese, which look like gold nuggets when you’re eating.

Here’s where the fun slowed down. I wish I had only eaten the appetizer and been done with it, because by the end of the meal I was sort of wishing I could go back to the queso. For starters, the tortillas of my enchiladas were tough, giving me the impression that they were stale. The chicken in my enchiladas was dry and flavorless. The only thing that saved the dish was probably the red sauce poured over top. The rice was dry and flavorless as well. All in all, I was thoroughly disappointed, as I was in the mood for heavy, cheesy food.

The service also left some room for improvement, as the employees seemed generally unhappy. I’m not asking for a parade but I like at least smiling with my waiter — it’s a part of the dining experience I’ve always liked. I enjoy that interaction throughout the meal. Something doesn’t feel quite complete.

It seems that La Hacienda didn’t make quite the good impression on my trip back in the eighth grade, and aside from the salsa and queso, it didn’t make one this time either. But hopefully this helps you sort out a place among the Mexican restaurants in Chapel Hill as having some of the best salsa and queso I’ve ever had. Everyone I was with had enchiladas, so our experience of the menu at least at that visit was limited. Who knows? I could’ve just picked one of the lesser flavorful items on the menu. Try it out for yourself — at least for that amazing salsa!