Mexico Via Washington?

Wait, we needed a chain Mexican restaurant in Tucson from the Pacific Northwest?

As a rule, the Weekly doesn't review chain restaurants. But it wasn't until I looked at the to-go menu the morning after our first visit that I realized this was the case with La Hacienda.

There were hints, I suppose: the huge, glossy menu with brightly colored photos of the food; the bland refried beans; the older, mostly white, diners.

Weirdly enough, all of the other units in the chain are in Washington state. According to the chain's website, the first one opened in 1988 and most of them are in small towns between Seattle and the Canadian border, not exactly what comes to mind when you think of hotbeds of south-of-the-border cuisine.

La Hacienda's dining room is open and brightly colored, and the small bar has the full assortment of libations. Artwork includes lots of metal pieces, including two that depict men in sombreros using a hoe and a shovel to dig up agave cactus. (I'll let you decide the political correctness of that choice.)

On our first visit, we ordered a combination plate with an enchilada, chile relleno and taco ($11.75); the camarones La Hacienda ($15.25); and a side of guacamole ($3.50). According to the menu, you can also have the guac made tableside as an appetizer.

The dishes were uninspired. Missing were the great earthy notes that make Mexican food so popular. The guacamole was a prime example. The flavor of the avocado was weak and there wasn't a hint of citrus. I'd been craving guacamole and this batch fell way short.

The same could be said of my shrimp. The menu describes the butterflied shrimp as "al mojo de ajo," which means there should be plenty of garlic. But there wasn't a trace of garlic and the shrimp were small. They came on a bed of sautéed yellow and green peppers, onions and mushrooms (a combo that appears often on the menu), which also lacked much flavor. The beans, although presented nicely in a fried-tortilla cup, were similarly unimpressive, as was the rice.

The combo plate was better, thanks to the large chile relleno. The chile was fresh and the egg coating was decent. But the taco and enchilada, both filled with a grainy beef mixture, weren't up to Tucson standards.

We also ordered flan ($4.95). It was so overcooked that the bottom was burnt—disappointing, to say the least.

Lunch on Cinco de Mayo was just as mediocre, although the service on both visits was friendly, if a bit slow.

The special that day was the espreso (their spelling) burrito ($7.95), which came with rice and refries. The menu said the ground beef burro was topped with enchilada sauce, Parmesan, onions, tomatoes and guacamole. There was enchilada sauce, all right, but the cheese was thick and melted, resembling jack cheese. There was no sign of the onions, tomatoes and guacamole, and the ground beef was in short supply, making it a big loser when lined up against the big, fat burros found all over town.

The cochinita pibil tacos, however, hit the mark. Here, at last, was a dish full of flavors and authenticity. The pork was slow-simmered in achiote sauce—slightly thick, dark red and delicious. Although described as "pulled pork," it was actually big chunks of tender meat that had absorbed the lovely sauce.

These street-style tacos are topped with pickled red onions, bits of tomato, a slice of avocado and a few thin slices of habanero pepper. Heat and sweet came together nicely and the avocado added a creamy texture. Although the salsa lacked heat, the flavors were fresh.

La Hacienda seems to cater to the timid palate. The food isn't bad; it's just not great. There's nothing that would bring back people who appreciate really good Mexican food (although judging from the crowds during our visits, there are plenty of folks in Tucson who think bland is just fine).