Fairfax’s fresh, hot watering hole: Hacienda El Paso

Michael spends time with his beloved menu, while I drink.

Still stinging from the loss of our favorite neighborhood hangout, Carlos O’Kelly’s, a chain that shuttered its Fairfax, Va., joint last March, my thirsty husband and I tested the spanking-new Hacienda El Paso Mexican Restaurant. One of five Northern Virginia locations (also in Springfield, Alexandria, Woodbridge and Fredericksburg), it has elbowed into Mama’s old spot on Fairfax Boulevard, or Route 50, next to the defunct Saturn dealer, now Farrish Subaru, just west of the Circle. My, times change.

I had spied a “yard sign” ad smothered by the political weeds at the intersection of Prosperity and Route 50 — the cantina’s staff seemed pleased that marketing effort paid off.

I was pleased to hear actual Spanish spoken at neighboring booths. Good sign. Roomier than most restaurants around town, it is a colorful hybrid of a Mexican diner and sports bar — with four distinct seating areas, including a back room that caters to families (animal chairs!) and a plasma-TV-equipped wing for large, unruly groups. The staff is friendly, authentically Hispanic, well-versed on the menu and super-attentive, communing in what looks like a central dance floor. As I said: roomy.

Next to the bar. this festive zone accommodates large groups, with jumbo-size booths and screens.

I ordered the Baja Fish Tacos, which were beer-battered cod on corn tortillas, dotted with Mexican cheese — surprisingly like feta, pico de gallo and served with a tangy homemade tartar sauce on the side. Overstuffed and hard to hold, but tasty. The black beans belied Southwestern grilled pork accents. Didn’t care much for the rice, which was like any packaged Mexican rice you find in the supermarket. Another couple, also COK refugees, said the queso was a disappointment — white, melted Mexican cheese with no salsa mixed in. “I miss the chunks of tomato and onion,” la dama said.

Here’s a detailed look at the menu. Dare I say it feels more healthful than Carlos’? A closer cousin to Chevy’s, our Merrifield oasis. The chips aren’t as good as either Carlos’ or Chevy’s — they’re that darker, drier, baked? kind — but the salsa comes in a cute carafe that patrons can pour into their bowls, thereby ensuring freshness and minimizing waste, I’m guessing. The salsa was a bit thin on texture and taste; I like mine spicier and more substantial.

The main event, though: lip-smacking, lovely ‘ritas. The “Cadillac” — with Cuervo 1800 and Grand Marnier — immediately says: “You’re not driving.” And the Big Blue leaves Carlos’ in the dust, apologies to Max the Bartender. Other specialties include a Sangrita, mixed with homemade sangria, and a Coronita that comes with an unplugged Corona dagger. Michael had the Presidente, spiked with Brandy. There’s also a frozen mango, but we don’t do frozen. The margaritas are the only pricey items on the menu, but seem worth it, as far as we could tell after two jumbos — each.

The sunken bathrooms, like entering a pool’s shallow end, seem not the wisest design for a cantina where folks gleefully imbibe. And downstairs, which used to be a Mama’s treasure for party rental (my eldest’s 18th was held there), suffered flood damage and is closed for business. But the overall decor is freaky fun, with tall, privacy-enhanced booths reminiscent of cars from a theme-park ride; easy-to-wipe Playskool-inspired furniture — in other words, tacky but not FEELING tacky from any spilled food; smart Spanish-tile floors and at least the appearance of hardwood. Nothing to Swiffer under our feet, thank goodness.

Looking forward to seeing more neighbors at the new margaritaville. There’s AMPLE parking in the back, and a pathway leading through the woods to Fairfax High School.

El Paso Mexican Restaurant
9715 Fairfax Blvd
Fairfax, Va. 22030
(703) 293-2990