When George and Ann Hartley moved from Dallas to South Walton in 1997, they discovered they had given up more than big-city life — they had also given up the authentic Mexican food they loved.
The Hartleys purchased Seagrove Village Market Cafe in 1999, with its trademark Southern-fried menu.
However, after settling in and building a following, during the off season the Hartleys began testing the market by offering a Mexican night every Thursday night at the cafe. Ann would email a simple menu out to her local contacts offering Senora Ann's Fish Tacos, a soup, and sangria for that night only.
"I'm not a chef, but I know how to prepare the Mexican dishes that I like," she said. "I would cook and set out the plates and tell the help to be sure to garnish with cilantro, and they would laugh. Those were the good old days."
Mexican Thursdays proved to be so popular that the Hartleys recognized they weren't the only ones craving authentic Mexican food at the beach. And when space came available in the new Villages of South Walton in Seacrest, the Hartleys slid in and opened La Cocina.
"Our favorite restaurant in Dallas is Mi Cocina and we wanted it to be like that," said Ann. "George is from Texas and I lived there for 20 years. We ate Mexican three nights a week and when we moved here there was no place to get it. We missed our Mexican fix."
The menu is a result of George, Ann, and Executive Chef Ben Lilliard putting their heads together.
On the menu at La Cocina Mexicana lovers can expect to find Senora Anna's Fish Tacos along with other traditional goodies such as Snapper Veracruz, Lobster Quesadilla, chili relleno, burritos, enchiladas, fajitas, flat-iron steak, scallops, and top it off with tres leches cake or cielo de chocolate.
Vegan and gluten-free options are available.
La Cocina seats around 140 in the restaurant and bar.
The bar is full service pouring margaritas, Cadillac margaritas, the popular skinny drinks, Mexican beer on tap, wine and other mixed drinks.
The Hartleys opened La Cocina in 2009. This was their third restaurant to open.
The restaurant is open 11 months a year; closed all of January.
"Owning this restaurant has allowed us to meet some incredibly neat people," said Ann. "We love the off season when it's not so busy and we all can take time to move around the restaurant and chat. We love it when it slows up and the locals come out again."
The Hartleys will celebrate La Cocina's fifth birthday Aug. 21, and Ann said there is a bunch of fun stuff planned such as food and drink specials, and celebratory photos will be taken.
La Cocina is open from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. for lunch and from 5-9 p.m. daily for dinner.
La Cocina is located at 10343 E. County Road 30A in Seacrest. Visit their website at www.lacocina30a.com.