I had a problem with the Red Iguana. The restaurant was too small and the menu was too big. So, a second Red Iguana should at least help alleviate the first problem, right? Well, not so fast, bucko.
A second Red Iguana, Red Iguana 2, opened last month. The idea, in part, was to take some of the pressure off of the original Red Iguana and, in theory, help diffuse the lengthy table waits. However, the opening of Red Iguana 2 seems to have awakened dormant Red Iguana lovers, like myself, who too-rarely visited the restaurant because of those aforementioned wait times. At 11:45 a.m. on a recent Friday, there was a half-hour wait to be seated for lunch at the new Red Iguana 2. On a Monday and a Wednesday, there were 45-minute delays for dinner seating. I’m convinced that if the Cardenas family—owners of the Red Iguanas — built a half-dozen additional Red Iguana restaurants, they’d still be mobbed. And indeed, there is a third Red Iguana slated to open in the City Creek Center food court in March. So I ask, what is it about Red Iguana that makes it so damned popular?
Service might be a key. Just last week I received two e-mails from different City Weekly readers complaining about lousy service they’d received at other restaurants in town. Both ended their correspondence with nearly identical suggestions for the offending restaurants: “They should hire some servers from the Red Iguana.”
I’ll second that. The staff at the Red Iguana restaurants — from owner Lucy Cardenas to waiters and waitresses like Omar, Sara and Michael — are simultaneously friendly, professional and efficient.
They hustle. And yet, while efficiency is critical with the sort of crowds Red Iguana attracts, I’ve never felt rushed there — even with 20 or 30 folks in waiting, all lusting after my table. If I could open a restaurant, I’d want to hire 10 Omars to work in it.
Maybe the Red Iguana décor is an attraction, but I doubt it. It’s funky. It’s kitschy. Most of all, though, it’s organic. No one pumped a million bucks into high falutin’ design. But, maybe that’s exactly the attraction. At Red Iguana, you don’t feel like you’re eating in a culinary shrine; it feels a lot more like eating at home.
Then there is the food. As I mentioned, I find the Red Iguana menus daunting. My quick tabulation found some 90 different dishes listed—and many of those, such as combo plates, have numerous variations— and that doesn’t even include side dishes or desserts. So, I often find myself defaulting to a handful of longtime favorites: the chile Colorado ($10.95) with tender stewed chunks of top sirloin in a cinnamon-scented sauce with New Mexico chiles; the signature pork loin cochinita pibil ($12.85); the completely addictive chile verde ($10.95); and the moles — all of the moles at Red Iguanas are winners.
During a recent visit to Red Iguana 2, I tried the red pipian mole ($15.95) and was knocked out. Now, I’ve eaten a lot of mole in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is to mole as Japan is to sushi. But I’ve never tasted mole better than this. It’s a subtle, slightly sweet and spicy, complex mole made with pumpkin seeds, peanuts, sunflowers seeds, guajillo chiles, onions and tomatoes. Tender pieces of boneless chicken are bathed in that luscious mole, and refried beans and Mexican rice are served on the side, along with warm tortillas (your choice of flour or corn) for soaking up the delicious sauce. Simply put, you could travel far and wide and never find a more satisfying dish than Red Iguana’s red pipian mole.
More pedestrian — but just as habit-forming — is the chile con queso starter ($6.25) at Red Iguana, spiked through and through with fiery jalapeños. Note: If you can’t eat it all, the leftovers reheat beautifully after a mere few seconds in a microwave.
Fajitas have never been something I lean toward (too much sizzle, not enough steak), but my stepson loved the top sirloin fajitas ($13.95) at Red Iguana 2. A meat dish that I am much more enamoured of, however, is the machaca burrito(s): two big burritos (I could barely eat one) stuffed with subtly seasoned shredded beef (machaca), with sliced bell peppers, a hint of tomato and scrambled egg in flour tortillas ($7.70). Save some of the spicy salsa from the free chips and salsa at each table to slather on top of those marvelous machaca burritos.
There are lots of cold beer options at Red Iguana but, frankly, I wasn’t expecting to find anything very drinkable in the way of wine. To my surprise, I found a bottle of Argentine Torrontes on the small wine list, priced at a very reasonable $17.25. Judging by our server’s struggle with the wine cork (I finally stepped in and took over), not a lot of wine bottles get opened at Red Iguana. In her defense, she was trying to operate a heavy, pewter corkscrew: one of those silly winged contraptions that make opening wine bottles with panache nearly impossible. The weight of this showy opener even gave me pause, and I’ve opened thousands of bottles in my day.
Red Iguana has always been a terrific place to sip and sup with friends. Me, well, I’m selfish and hate waiting in lines. So expect to find me eating solo at the Red Iguana 2 counter, where there is rarely a wait and I get a front-row view of the restaurant’s amazing kitchen and service staff.
Red Iguana 2
866 W. South Temple
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