La Majada brand comes to River Forest
La Majada Express server Kim Figueroa waits on some of the restaurant's patrons on Nov. 24 in the new establishment in River Forest. | Steve Johnston~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 28, 2013 1:57AM
RIVER FOREST — When brothers Hector and Jesse Haggar opened their first Mexican restaurant in Oak Park 36 years ago, they started small.
They took over a former hole-in-the wall, greasy spoon on Harrison Street at Harvey Avenue, with just six tables, Jesse Haggar said.
By comparison, the new La Majada Express restaurant that opened Nov. 11 at Lake Street and Lathrop Avenue in River Forest has 10 tables seating about 25 people. A patio area set to open in the spring will seat an additional 40 to 50 customers.
If history is any guide, the Haggar’s latest venture will catch on quickly. Just five months after opening in Oak Park in April 1976, the Haggars broke through a wall into the neighboring space to expand. It was the first of six expansions during the next decade that would see the restaurant take over the west end of the 200 block of West Harrison.
The Haggars say they want to roll out the River Forest location slowly, “To work all the bugs out.”
Jesse Haggar, who is managing the restaurant, said any grand opening will wait until after the holidays.
The restaurant is already seeing a modest but steady stream of customers just from word of mouth.
Haggar pulled out an Oak Park La Majada menu to underscore a key fact about their food — the word “express” doesn’t mean immediate.
“Good food takes time to prepare well,” the menu cover reads. “We cook healthy Mexican food by grilling and broiling. We appreciate your patience.”
Haggar said the brothers have had the idea of opening “one or two” new restaurants for several years. But no opportunity presented itself until Hector drove past the former Annie’s and saw it was vacant.
“I think we worked kind of backwards,” Jesse Haggar said. “We just did what we did, then realized this could be great.
“We had just two (criteria): availability and being allowed to sell liquor,” he said.
It wasn’t until construction was underway that they realized what a good corner they had.
“That’s when we started noticing all the traffic going by,” said Jesse. “I said, ‘This is amazing. Traffic is unbelievable.’”
Jesse praised River Forest village officials and staff for being “amazingly accommodating and prompt.”
Assistant Village Administrator Michael Braiman, he said, was “very attentive, friendly and knowledgeable.” Within a short time after the Haggar’s contacted him, Braiman and his boss, Administrator Eric Palm, made a presentation to the Village Board, where it met with similar support.
Key to the Haggar’s plan was an ordinance change — passed in the spring — that allowed them to serve alcoholic drinks to diners.
Construction over the summer included rebuilding the kitchen and renovating the bathrooms.
River Forest Village President John Rigas said he and his village board colleagues are delighted to see a restaurant operating in the space again.
“It’s great for River Forest,” he said.
Haggar said he’s seen indications residents welcome the restaurant. A common refrain, he said, is “we’ve waited years for a place like this, to sit, drink, relax.”
Rigas backs Haggar’s reading of the local populace. “I think River Forest people would love to stay local if they had a choice,” he said.
Looming over the new restaurant are plans to redevelop much of the south side of the 7600 block of Lake Street as a five-story mixed-use retail and condo building.
The village is sitting on $3 million in escrowed Tax Increment Financing money to be used for property acquisition and environmental remediation costs.
With a continuing soft condo market and property owner Edward Ditchfield embroiled in a federal lawsuit over environmental contamination, it remains uncertain whether any redevelopment will occur before the Dec. 31, 2013, deadline for spending the money.
Haggar said his family is aware of the possibility that the building may be redeveloped. “I just hope that doesn’t happen,” he said.
“I’d like to be here for 36 years, like the other La Majada.”