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The Hacienda Restaurant

May 05, 1990|ELENA BRUNET and Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday (lunch); 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (dinner); 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday (brunch) and Address: 1725 College Ave., Santa Ana and Telephone: (714) 558-1304 or (714) 494-9650 and Miscellaneous Information: Daily lunch fare features soups, quiches and sandwiches. | Clipboard researched by Elena Brunet and Dallas M. Jackson / Los Angeles Times, Graphics by Doris Shields / Los Angeles Times

The history behind the Hacienda Restaurant is almost as good as its award-winning margaritas and Sunday brunches.

The house, which began modestly as a garage and a small apartment, was built in the 1910s by the Strange family. When the Depression hit, most of the family returned to New York, with the exception of son William, a would-be Hollywood producer. When he sold the house, he left only tin cans and a pile of refuse and garden cuttings used by a mother duck to raise large families of ducklings.

But it was the Brisco family that transformed the house into the splendid manor that exists today. They acquired the Strange home and property from William, enlarged it in 1937 (calling it "Casa Contenta," Spanish for "happy house") and started an orange ranch on 40 acres of what was then open country.

After the Briscos sold the house in the mid-1950s, it was for a time a hippie commune and then home to a counterfeit operation. The land changed, too. What were ranch fields of oranges and avocados, grazing geese and peacocks is now the Brisco Center, a complex of offices occupied by local branches of the state of California, and Doctors Hospital of Santa Ana. The estate's driveway, lined with palm trees, became the current College Avenue.

The house itself survived within the new development. June and Terry Neptune took over management of the property in 1979, leasing it from the present owner, Donald Shear, and turning the house into the Hacienda Restaurant.

On weekends, the Hacienda's inner courtyard accommodates three weddings and receptions per day. The restaurant closes only for sizable weddings--400 to 500 guests.

Still, there are remnants of what once was an estate's grand manor house: the nearly foot-thick walls of original adobe, the tile floors on the ground floor, the terra-cotta roof and the door latches. In those rooms, used for wedding receptions, are a china cabinet of 160 years that must have been a Brisco family heirloom, a grandfather clock imported from Spain and still operating after 200 years, and a dresser that is a youthful 100 years old. The original kitchen is now the Hacienda's offices. Other period pieces acquired by June Neptune complement the originals.

She is also responsible for the Southwestern fare on the restaurant's menu. Sesame chicken is the most popular item (chilies are ground up with sesames into a sesame sauce), followed by the blue corn chicken enchiladas, carne adovada (pork marinated in red chili), chalupas, flautas and black beans. The Southern California Restaurant Writers have given the Hacienda their Silver Award for the past three years for its Sunday brunch, which offers an omelet bar, a taco bar and salad bar, in addition to hot entries such as tamales, enchiladas and roast beef.

The Hacienda's margaritas have been voted No. 1 in Orange County by Orange County Business to Business, among other periodicals.

A spirit is reported to haunt the house. "Some of the doors open, and there's no reason they should be opening," says June Neptune. But if a ghost has ever made its presence known to any bride using the master bedroom upstairs as a dressing room, it was only to present to her its best wishes in establishing her own casa contenta.

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