Two recommendations this week: first, if you’re a seafood lover and a fan of Mexican food, there’s no better place in Nashville for a harmonious convergence of the two than La Hacienda Marisqueria. Second, unless you’re fairly fluent in the language, I’d suggest bringing along a small Spanish-English dictionary or someone with access to a wireless online version.
The exceedingly warm and gracious wait staff is long on smiles, hospitality and service, but short on menu translations, almost as linguistically challenged when it comes to English as most of their Anglo customers are when it comes to Spanish.
This is not necessarily an issue for folks who have found their Mexican food comfort zone and do not intend to stray. Can you say beef taco, bean burrito, chile relleno, cheese quesadilla and enchilada? Muy bien! If that’s what you want, it’s muy facil, no matter which side of the border you hail from.
But, if your intent is to order from the menu devoted entirely to fish, then you’ll be wanting your dictionary or Treo. Not that translations are guaranteed.
For starters, punch in “Marisqueria,” and the response—no matter how often you try—will be “Sorry, no English matches found.” Local gringos are quite familiar with La Hacienda, which was not the first Mexican restaurant in Nashville, but certainly one of the first authentic ones. Its ads say it has been “serving authentic Mexican since 1992,” which is a little over a year after Carlos Yepez, a Mexican immigrant to California, came to Nashville pulling a tortilla-making machine in a U-haul and seeking a location to build a new life for his young family. The day before he was to return the truck, he found an available building on Nolensville Road, where he set up his business: a tortilla production facility on one side, a small market on the other. For a year, he worked seven days a week, from 2 a.m. to 9 p.m. His wife worked alongside him; his two oldest daughters, Rachel and Terry, came in at 4 a.m. to pitch in before school, then back again after school for another shift, doing homework in the back room. Yepez’s mother- and father-in-law, Teresa and Aureliano Ceja, moved from California to help with the younger children. Last month, the Cejas were attacked in their apartment; Aureliano was killed, and Teresa sustained serious injuries. The family and community remain in mourning and shock, and posters hang in the windows of La Hacienda Marisqueria asking for any information leading to the unknown assailants.
Soon after Yepez opened the market, Mexican immigrants who had settled in the area and shopped there urged him to set up a grill. As soon as he did, the four seats at the counter that fronted it were constantly occupied, so he squeezed a couple tables up against the market windows. They too filled up, so a couple more were added. By 1995, he moved the tortilla factory to a separate location, and devoted half of the original building’s space to a restaurant. Business was so good that in the late ’90s, he purchased the old Friedman’s building next door, relocated and expanded the market there, and converted the entire original building to La Hacienda.
La Hacienda Marisqueria—for now the same market-restaurant formula—opened less than a year ago. On the east side of Nolensville Road just before the overpass by the Nashville Zoo, the eye-catching yellow-painted exterior qualifies for “you can’t miss it” distinction when giving directions. The interior is also festive, the walls painted a brilliant blue with seaside references like palm trees, crabs and beached fishing boats. Tables are covered with multi-hued serapes, colorful silk flowers are stuck in emptied hot sauce bottles, tri-colored bunting and crepe paper hang from the ceiling, and bouncy Mexican music provides a cheerful soundtrack.
The standard menu at La Hacienda Marisqueria is a near-replica of La Hacienda up the street, a large trifold that presents dozens of choices, including breakfast. The lure for our party was the separate seafood selection. Yepez relocated a chef from California to attend specifically and exclusively to this menu, which we had to track down as it was not inserted into our trifolds. With just one exception—“Seafood Menu” written across the top—the double-sided laminated sheet is written entirely in Spanish, thus the need for a dictionary or Treo.
Had we had one at our disposal, we might have avoided one misstep. With our limited experience and knowledge of Spanish, we muddled our way through; one in our party of seven said he would really like some shrimp. Studying the list of six camaron dishes, I asked him if there was anything he absolutely did not like. He replied that he could not abide onions. If you have the same aversion, do not order Camarones Borrachos, cocido en limon y cebollas, as I unfortunately did. When my former friend eagerly took the piece of aluminum foil off the large bowl set ceremoniously before him, the look of horror on his face was pure Fear Factor. But rather than a nest of tarantulas or writhing snakes, a thick layer of sliced raw white onion provoked the horrified reaction. With a shriek, he thrust it to the person across the table, who dug under the offending vegetable to find a tangle of shelled, butterflied shrimp soaking in a pool of lime juice. Belatedly, we found that “cebollas” means “onions.” Though none of the rest of us was fond enough of raw cebollas to actually eat them, we loved the citrus-infused shrimp, “cooked” to an astonishing tenderness by the lime juice.
There is plenty more shrimp on the menu, popping up in cocteles (cocktails), on tostadas (a crispy, deep-fried tortilla), in caldos (soups), in tacos and as part of a brocheta (grilled skewer).
Mexican shrimp cocktails bear little resemblance to the versions found in steakhouses. Served in deep bowls, the steamed shrimp sink to the bottom of a soupy mix of tomato juice, chopped onion, tomato, sliced avocado, fresh cilantro and lime wedges. The small (chico) shrimp cocktail is quite generous, and the grande is huge; both are stupid cheap, $4.50 and $8.50 respectively.
Even more impressive—in size and composition—was the 7 mares caldos, a serving-sized bowl of tomato-based soup thick with seven kinds of seafood: shrimp, fish, scallop, clam, octopus, crab and conch. The grande ($12.99) was passed around the table twice to enthusiastic response.
There are three whole fried fish on the menu; if you have a problem with eyeballs on your plate, the filetes should satisfy your deep-fry cravings. But if you are as intrigued, as we were, by the myth that eating fish eyeballs will give you visions, choose between mojarra (tilapia), huachinango (red snapper) or bagre (catfish, though in Costa Rica, it is slang for prostitute, so be cautious when ordering). Our red snapper—which we squirted with fresh lime juice—was perfectly fried, the skin a golden crisp, the meat flaky and sweet.
Fish tacos—a light alternative to the greasy ground-beef variety—can be made with pescado (simple white fish), pulpo (octopus), camaron or mojarra. We tried the first and the last, which in both cases were boneless pieces of lightly grilled fish simply seasoned with oil, salt and pepper, on two corn tortillas with shredded carrot, lettuce, cabbage, chopped tomato, onion and cilantro, a bit of minced jalapeño pepper and a drizzle of white crema Mexicano. Squirt on some lime juice and a choice of red sauce, tomatillo sauce or hot sauce, fold it over and savor the distinct but complementary flavors and textures.
La Hacienda Marisqueria has a full bar and a daily happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m. serving two-for-one margaritas, frozen or on the rocks, and buckets of Coronita’s or standard-sized beers. A patio out front sets a place for al fresco dining and a view of the bustling global culture of Nolensville Road.
Central to the polarizing debate over immigration is a sense of anger that immigrants are somehow “taking” something from the U.S. citizenry. But you don’t have to look hard in Nashville to see what people from Mexico, India, Vietnam, Iran, Ethiopia and elsewhere offer here. Diversity in dining is one of their many contributions. Beyond the restaurateurs serving culturally diverse fare, there are immigrants in nearly 100 percent of Nashville’s commercial kitchens—cracking oysters, washing dishes and scrubbing floors.
“I came at the right time,” Carlos Yepez told the Scene in 1997. “The Hispanic community was just starting to grow. When I came here, there were many single men here, working and sending money back. Now you see many more families, making a life for themselves. They work hard, and they work long hours. Here, it’s a good chance to make a good living. It is opportunity. I love Nashville. It is a dream come true.”
It seems like a pretty fair trade. Among the gifts we receive in exchange for that opportunity are vibrant retail citizens like La Hacienda Marisqueria, painting an ever-diversifying culinary landscape.