I had a chance to have a proper dinner at the new La Hacienda de San Angel, the newest full-service restaurant at Epcot. The newly constructed building in front of the Mexico pavilion on the shore of the lagoon offers a new option for indoor dining -- and not incidentally one of the closest views of the Illuminations fireworks display in the park. (More about that later.)
I had attended the opening festivities, held on the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence, and I posted a video of the evening’s events here. But a recent invitation to attend a media dinner afforded a chance for a better look -- and taste -- of the food.
And the drinks. La Hacienda has an extensive menu of margaritas and tequilas, and even employs some experts with the title Tequila Ambassador. Now there’s a job for you! The margaritas are fun, and several of them are tasty -- I recommend you try the margarita sampler, which will give you five larger-than-a-shot-glass gulps. For my tastes, the margaritas were a bit too sweet. Authentic Mexican margaritas are not as cloying. In fact, they have little or no simple syrup and a lot more tarty lime. Or whatever.
The margaritas are a perfect example of the difference in philosophies between me and the Epcot restaurants. I want the restaurants to serve as authentic a product as they possibly can, offering a true taste of the home country as an educational tool.
The restaurants, however, want to make money. And as Richard Debler, president and CEO of Palmas Services, which operates the restaurants, says, the tourists want something they’re going to like, not necessarily something that’s authentic. Try to educate their palates with the real thing and they’ll high-tail it to Le Cellier for a safe steak. And so you’re more likely to find things that have been modified to appeal to the largest common denominator.
But that’s not to say the food is not good. It is. In fact I liked most of what I sampled quite a bit. One of the immediate hits with guests is the chiles toreados y chorizitos, a bowl of bright green peppers and little fat chorizo pork links, sort of a Mexican version of Vienna sausages, all charred and grilled. Although they look a bit like hot jalapenos, the peppers are in fact sweet (and Japanese: they’re shoshito peppers). But a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of sea salt, along with the porky flavor and just a tad of heat from the little chorizos, and you’ve got a delicious starter course you can eat with your fingers. (Whether it’s really worth $12.25 is another matter.)
I also sampled the Botana, a platter of appetizers of chicken tostada, pork sope, and cheese empanada. The empanada was the winner, full of gooey cheese.
My companions and I shared the two entree mixed grill platters, or parrillada: La Hacienda, with chicken, flank steak and chorizo; and the Del Mar, with mahi-mahi, shrimp and scallops. The platters are meant for two to share and are priced at $49.95 each. They come with mixed grilled vegetables and a rice and corn mixture that was wonderful. Both platters were very good, the meats tender and well seasoned, the seafood fresh tasting. The meat platter included the same little chorizos from the appetizers, so if you get them there, you may want to get something else for your entree.
There’s a wonderful dessert at meal’s end, a tamal de dulce. It’s an actual corn masa tamale only sweet, and filled with guava then topped with strawberry coulis. Delicious.
Enjoy the dessert with a cup of coffee, or, better yet, Agavero, a liqueur made with a blend of two tequilas. It sips like a well-rounded scotch but has the distinctive tequila flavors. Have it on the rocks.
And sip it slowly if you want to keep the table for the evening’s presentation of Illuminations. The restaurant was designed with lots of windows looking out to the lagoon where the fireworks and light show take place. The building’s location puts diners perhaps closer to the action than anywhere else around the lagoon. (Debler told me the original design would have pushed the building even farther out, but would have involved moving one of the stanchions that hold the dishes of fire that figure into Illuminations -- too expensive.)
I had arguably the best seat in the house for the show, but it was in the house. I had a terrific view -- and the sound is pumped in, too. But there’s something about watching a fireworks show from inside that leaves something to be desired. You miss the percussive thump of the explosives, and you can’t feel the heat of the erupting fireballs. I’d rather be outside (and there’s a new deck next to the restaurant, part of the seating area for La Cantina, that is the new perfect place to watch.) You can get a feel for what it’s like to watch the show from inside on my original video.
La Hacienda is open only for dinner, but part of the restaurant is available for seating for guests who order food from La Cantina. It’s a nice place to sit, designed to feel like a large, um, hacienda, upscale and comfortable.
Service for our meal was terrific, some of the best in the park, no doubt.
The gracious staff might just be the most authentic part of the experience.
La Hacienda de San Angel is at the Mexico pavilion in Epcot. It is open for dinner daily. Click this link to download the menu , and this one for the drinks and desserts . Reservations are all but mandatory and can be made by calling 407-939-3463. Here’s a link to the restaurant’s Web page.