By Cortez Fields
A packed front of the house and the clanging of dishes served as chaotic background noise for the staff at Taco Hacienda.
On the surface, Tuesday seemed like a normal busy night for the 43-year-old Lake Havasu City restaurant, but there is a lingering sense of sadness in the air from the patrons and staff. This Taco Tuesday would be Taco Hacienda’s last. Riverscene Magazine got the chance to see the famed Havasu hot spot close its doors.
From Tires to Tacos
Taco Hacienda opened 43 years ago in Lake Havasu City, near the intersection of Mesquite Avenue and Acoma Boulevard. Initially owned by Jerry and Marlene Nightengale, current owners Carl and Mendy Jackson bought it from them on a whim 24 years ago.
Carl and Mendy Jackson moved to Lake Havasu City from Hemet, Calif., in 1987. There were only about 17,000 people in Lake Havasu at the time, Mendy Jackson told us.
Carl Jackson was a former off-road racer, which led the couple to buy a Goodyear tire store in Lake Havasu City. The Jacksons eventually sold the store when their last son graduated from high school. The two had just retired from owning a the store in Lake Havasu when they decided to purchase Taco Hacienda. After only two years of retirement, Mendy Jackson became restless.
“I had been retired for two years, and I begged Carl to let me get back to work.”
The two decided to reach out to the owners of their favorite Mexican restaurant and see if they were selling it. In a bit of the luck, the owners sold it to the Jacksons in just a month. The couple quickly went to work on the restaurant, starting off by expanding their celebrated menu to include chicken and pork.
“It was a huge learning experience,” Mendy Jackson said, “But we learned from the staff.” Utilizing the huge local following that Taco Hacienda had established, the couple continued the restaurant’s success by working it year round for 24 years.
“It can be very demanding. Aside from Christmas, Thanksgiving, and an early Super Bowl Sunday, we’re open year round.” Mendy and Carl’s dedication to the restaurant extended to their family, which continued to work in the restaurant through the generations. Their son and daughter-in-law, Tim and Stefanie Morris, also run Bad Miguel’s. Their grandson, Tristen Morris, grew up in the restaurant from a young age.
The Staff Behind the Tacos
Taco Hacienda’s staff contributed to the sense of family the Jacksons worked so hard to maintain. Kim Craig, the manager, had worked for Taco Hacienda for 14 years. She loved her fellow staff as family and promises to stay close with them.
She said she loved the entire experience and will also be sad to see it go. Many other staff have a deep connection with the restaurant, some of them being former customers turned employees.
Jill Echelberger, a former server for Taco Hacienda, showed up Tuesday on her day off to help the restaurant one last time. She is one of the few staff members who was once a former customer. Echelberger has been in Havasu since the restaurant opened 43 years ago.
“I was a long-time customer and I wanted a part-time job, so I just asked.” After working at Taco Hacienda for s few years, Echelberger found a more permanent position with city and left, but she continued to be a faithful customer. Eventually, she came back to work as a part-time server once more before becoming a customer.
“I just love this place. The food is amazing and my coworkers are like my family. I’m still connected with all of them.” Her son, Cody, also came out to help on the last day. She said he’s been coming here his entire life. Jill’s favorite dish is the Taco A La Carte.
Another server, Melanie Hopper, was also sad to see the restaurant close after all this time. A longtime Havasu resident, Melanie Hopper said that this was her “dream job” in Havasu. She joins the many other servers who saw the staff as family. She also loves her customers, many of whom are regulars.
Brandy Eaton, a server of 14 years, shares this sentiment. She appreciates the fact that everyone, from the owners to the wait staff, are always nice.
No one really sees this more than Vickie Cruz, who has been a server for 23 years at Taco Hacienda.
“I’ve seen all my regulars grow up from little kids to adults with their own kids.” Cruz’s favorite part of working for Taco Hacienda was the customers. She told us she came for lunch one day and stayed to become a waitress.
“I love them, even when they’re stealing our cups to remember us.”
A Havasu Staple
Many Havasuvians came to enjoy Taco Hacienda one last time on Tuesday. They shared their stories of Taco Hacienda with Riverscene Magazine.
“We’ve been coming here for 30 years,” Howard Forschler said, with his wife Anne, right next to him.
“This was the second restaurant we ever ate at in Havasu.” Forschler has figured that they’ve eaten at Taco Hacienda 3,120 different times. It’s their favorite place in Lake Havasu, so much so that he left the hospital after having prophylactic shock a day early just celebrate the last Taco Tuesday. The two love the staff and view Taco Tuesday as a tradition, not just another night out.
“We came out here to Lake Havasu City for retirement, and we raised three kids through our 49 years of marriage.” The entire time, they’ve been going to Taco Hacienda. The couple’s favorite dishes are the chile verde enchiladas, and the Mexican pizza, respectively.
They’re not the only longtime locals who were at Taco Hacienda for one last time.
Nathan Batson is another regular at Taco Hacienda. He’s been in Havasu since 1990, and has eaten at Taco Hacienda for his entire life. A Havasu native, he was born and raised going Taco Hacienda. His parents even lived across the street from the eatery before he was born. As a drummer and a local, Batson frequented the restaurant. Nathan’s favorite aspect of Taco Hacienda was that the waitresses always knew his order when he walked in.
“I always get a Mountain Dew and shredded beef chimichangas,” he said.
The Jacksons have sold the building but indicated it will remain a restaurant.
And for those who long for Taco Hacienda’s very own salsa, it will be available for sale in the future at Bad Miguel’s and will also be used in the restaurant.