St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places and dishes that make our food scene what it is.
When Alexandra "Alex" Rodriguez tells the story of Hacienda, she cannot separate the restaurant from her late father, Norberto, even though he would have disliked some of the details she chooses to share. A native of Tampico, Mexico, Norberto immigrated to the United States when he was just sixteen years old, making the journey by himself save for an acquaintance who was bound for New York. Though Norberto thought he'd make the way up east too, his fellow expat told him that the Big Apple might be too fast for him, handed him $10 and said he should try St. Louis instead. With no formal education and no English, Norberto accepted the money and was determined to figure it out.
"He always hated that I'd share he didn't have a formal education, but I think that's the coolest part," Rodriguez says. "He is completely self-taught. He came here completely alone with only ten bucks and a 'good luck' from his friend. His first job here was on a farm making one dollar a week. I can't even imagine how little money that was, but he did what he had to do for a minute, then found his way into restaurants and worked his way up."
Now at the helm of the restaurant her dad founded in 1968, Rodriguez can't help but feel a sense of pride at what he accomplished, as well as an obligation to keep his dream alive. It's a weight — albeit a welcome one — she feels because of Norberto's significant impact on the St. Louis dining scene. When he arrived in St. Louis in the early 1960s, Mexican cuisine was not widely available, but he was instrumental in changing that. He started out slowly, opening an American-style breakfast spot in downtown Overland, where he gradually added Mexican dishes to the menu here and there. It didn't take long for him to develop a following, so he expanded both his hours and offerings, turning the daytime spot into a budding Mexican restaurant.
Norberto's restaurant eventually outgrew the small breakfast spot's space, and as he looked around for larger digs, he realized that there was enough demand for his Mexican dishes to open a place solely dedicated to the country's culinary traditions. That restaurant, Hacienda, opened in 1968 just down Woodson Road from his original daytime concept, and was an instant success — so much that he began scouting for a second location a handful of years after opening the Overland original. When he came upon an old residence-turned-restaurant on Manchester Road in the middle of Rock Hill, he knew he'd found his spot.
When he opened the current Rock Hill Hacienda in 1977, the area was significantly less developed than it is today. However, Norberto had the foresight to see what the area could become, and he sold off his original location to some family members so that he could focus on the new place. As Rodriguez explains, there was just something special about the space that people felt drawn to, likely because of its colorful history — something that everyone who worked there embraced.
"This location was originally a residence that was owned by a steamboat captain," Rodriguez says. "It had already been converted into a restaurant when my dad bought it, but if you look around, you can tell where the exterior walls were and where we added on. There's just so much history here. The staff even thinks they have seen ghosts — there are all these stories about a woman in a purple dress. No one has seen her in a while though, so maybe she parted ways and is at rest."
Though Rodriguez never saw any specters herself, she and her brother, John, have their own stories about the restaurant that they grew up in.
"We were there all the time," Rodriguez says. "It's funny; when you're little, your normal is your normal. For me, having a restaurant was my normal, but I know it was definitely special. I remember being so little and helping put doilies on plates — when you are five, that feels special. We also learned how to fold napkins, just little things like that. When I got a little bigger, I did coat check during the holidays and definitely felt like a big kid doing that."
Though Rodriguez and her brother understood somewhere deep down that the restaurant was their birthright, they were not convinced it would be their career. Instead, they went off on their own paths — Rodriguez to Chicago for art school and her brother to Berklee College of Music in Boston. However, when it became clear to Rodriguez about a decade ago that her father needed help, she returned to St. Louis and has been in charge of the restaurant ever since.
Rodriguez says that it's been quite a ride since taking over, especially with the challenges the last year and a half has presented. She credits her longtime staff with keeping the restaurant going — some of whom have worked there for decades, including the kitchen manager, who has been a presence at the property even before her dad owned it.
"We joke around that he came with the building, because he literally did," Rodriguez laughs. "He was working in the kitchen of the restaurant that was here before my dad bought it, and he just stayed on working even after the change. He's worked in this building since he was seventeen making all of our recipes, and he's still here today."
Rodriguez feels that her kitchen manager's story as well as the stories of her other longtime employees and her family are the reasons that Hacienda has such a special place in the hearts of St. Louis diners. Though she knows the food is delicious, she also understands that people continue to patronize the restaurant decades after its founding because they feel a connection to the people who work there. Those relationships are what sustained the restaurant through the pandemic-induced closures and switch to carry-out, and they continue to sustain her and her staff as they have adjusted to the new COVID-19 normal.
However, Rodriguez believes there are good things that have come out of the pandemic. Though she sadly had to close her fast-casual concept, Mayana, she was able to turn the former restaurant's food truck into an Hacienda on wheels. Between that and the Hacienda catering truck, she and her team were able to not just 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 steady because she knows how much it means to people — and how much it means to her to keep up the house that her dad built.
"I'm always thinking of my dad," Rodriguez says. "I always know what Dad did was special; I felt that 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 am honored and grateful I am a part of protecting this and keeping it going and keeping his dream alive."We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]
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