190 Hunter St. West, Peterborough
Sandra Acriniega never intended to move to Canada, or open a Mexican food restaurant—but that’s exactly what happened. Growing up in Guadalajara, capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco, she was surrounded by excellent food, and drink—the town of Tequila is nearby, surrounded by blue agave. And there was always something good on the stove—her mother, grandmother, and aunts, she says, were all excellent cooks.
After graduating university, Arciniega took a trip to Toronto with friends, and ended up meeting her husband. Moving north for love, she wanted to do something where she could share her homeland with her new neighbours. First, that was Mexican ceramics. Now, it’s La Hacienda, which has been serving up authentic Mexican for almost two decades. “I carry my country with me in my heart,” she tells me.
Arciniega remembers that when she saw the space now occupied by the restaurant, everything clicked. It’s now a bright place decorated with big murals and original artwork, both Catrinas and crosses from her homeland, with a sunny side patio. “I believe in destiny” she says. The neighbourhood, however, was a bit down at the heels, at the time. Her space, which had sat empty for months, had once been a funeral home. There was a scratch-and-ding appliance shop on the block. “It was not an attractive street at all,” she explains.
Things have definitely changed. Now sitting in the heart of the Hunter Street Café District, on a recent visit I met with one of her managers, who prepared an enchilada for me. Filled with chicken and smothered with mole pablano from Oaxaca—a chilli-based sauce with hints of chocolate that’s been developed over literally hundreds of years—it all tastes super-fresh.
And Arciniega says that’s because it is. Nothing is frozen, and everything is prepared fresh every day, from making salsa and sauces to boiling chickens. She actually has a stand at the farmer’s market, selling handmade chips, salsa and tortillas, and has created an extensive network of nearby producers. Ingredients come from a number of local farms, including a sustainable agriculture operation at Trent University, which delivers everything from tomatillos to cilantro, radishes, lettuce and carrots, even squash for her tortillas.
“We use simple combinations, and they explode with flavour,” says Arciniega, noting that she researched dishes from across her home country to come up with the menu. “Every corner of Mexico has such delicious cuisine,” she explains. They keep the dishes as authentic and faithful to the original form as possible. But at the end of the day, it’s her passion that makes the difference on the plate. “Everything I touch,” she says, “has that love, from my family.”