Apronomics: John Rodriguez of Hacienda

In 1968, Norberto ‘Bob’ Rodriguez opened Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, St. Louis’ first full service Mexican dining establishment, in a modest, 12-table space in Overland. Back then, Mexican cuisine wasn’t on the collective radar; to many, it seemed unfamiliar and even exotic.

The Rodriguez patriarch embraced the challenge. Over the next few decades, he worked diligently to give customers fresh Mexican food that was flavorful and accessible. Today, Mexican restaurants are, of course, everywhere. Yet none has endured quite like Hacienda, now located on Manchester Road in Rock Hill in a historic Civil War-era building, where it moved in 1977.

Next month, Hacienda marks its 50th anniversary. “It’s still crazy to me that St. Louis only had three Mexican restaurants when Dad opened,” says John Rodriguez, who co-owns Hacienda with his younger sister, Alex Rodriguez de Torres, and their mother, Joan. Rodriguez first worked there at age 10, eventually bussing tables and working as a barback. Rodriguez de Torres served as a hostess. The siblings also operate Mayana Mexican Kitchen, a fast-casual eatery in Clayton, which they opened in 2016.

It wasn’t always about the restaurant biz for Rodriguez. After graduating from Ladue High School in 1997, he pursued his love of music by attending Berklee College of Music in Boston where he earned dual degrees, one in film scoring and the other in commercial writing and production. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles and did “basically everything you can think of in the music industry,” he says. “I worked at a licensing company, I wrote jingles, I wrote music for independent films.”

But after eight years on the West Coast and with his 30th birthday approaching, Rodriguez was at a crossroads. “I thought, ‘Do I want to keep grinding this kind of work out, and do I want to do it forever?’ I knew I wanted a family, and I knew my family wanted me to come back,” he recalls.

In 2010, Rodriguez returned to his hometown, and he and his staff have remained dedicated to preserving the culinary vision of his father, who passed away in 2016. The restaurant remains solely family-owned, and his wife, Julie, even handles marketing and guest relations. Rodriguez says he’s kept things decidedly familiar. “Our menu hasn’t changed much,” he says. “The recipes my Dad and his staff developed—staples like our margaritas, chips and salsa, fajitas and guacamole—we wouldn’t even consider changing.” Demand for certain ingredients has shifted radically, however. “We pay more now for avocados by weight than we do for meat,” Rodriguez says.

When describing Hacienda’s fare, he prefers not to get hung up on jargon. “I think people who characterize us as ‘Tex-Mex’ or ‘Cali-Mex’ haven’t experienced Mexican food in Texas or California,” he says. “But the labels don’t matter to me. It’s about the quality.”

Like his father, Rodriguez is sharply tuned to growth. Hacienda started expanding early on, and it has tripled in size since its humble beginnings to now accommodate roughly 600 guests. The five eating spaces include a lively outdoor patio and indoor bar areas. On a robust night, the kitchen crew sends out 1,200 plates, and Rodriguez estimates bartenders mix 100,000 margaritas each year. The Hacienda Wet Burrito, Bob Rodriguez’s creation and Hacienda’s most ordered item, sells to the tune of around 12,000 per year. Rodriguez himself mostly keeps out of the kitchen. “It’s like watching a ballet,” he says of the crew’s precise workflow, “so I try to stay out of the way.”

In 2015, the restaurant expanded its reach and launched the nonprofit Hacienda Foundation of St. Louis. Its mission is to better the greater St. Louis communities through the support of local charities, including Make- A-Wish Foundation and Nurses for Newborns. So far, the charity has raised approximately $35,000.

Hacienda’s overall concept is not a chef-driven one. “There is no single personality behind us,” Rodriguez says. Instead, it’s teamwork that’s helped the business thrive. Does he foresee Hacienda celebrating a century come 2068? “I think so,” he says. “I want us to.”

hacienda guacamole especial 
4 ripe avocados
1 fresh, diced jalapeño
or serrano chile
1/2 t salt
1/4 t garlic powder
2 T lemon juice
1 T grated queso añejo*

Cut the avocado flesh into cubes, and place in mixing bowl. Add chile, salt and garlic powder. Smash half or more of the avocado to form a chunky spread.
» If serving immediately, stir in all of the lemon juice and sprinkle with queso añejo and garnishes. If serving later, stir in 1 T lemon juice, smooth the surface and sprinkle the remaining juice on top. Cover tightly with plastic wrap to prevent discoloration. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
» Serve with tortilla chips and a lemon wedge.

* Queso añejo is a dry, crumbly, salty Mexican cheese. Look for it at ethnic markets. You can substitute cotija (another Mexican cheese) or grated Romano. Variation: Use lime juice instead of lemon juice.

Yield: 8 servings