Music | The Wolf and the Iguana: A Love Story: Los Lobos’ Louie Perez recalls the band’s experiences at the Red Iguana. | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Music | The Wolf and the Iguana: A Love Story: Los Lobos’ Louie Perez recalls the band’s experiences at the Red Iguana. 

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Every Red Iguana patron has seen the jaunty cholo script on the restaurant’s Wall of Fame that reads “Los Lobos.” Maybe you’re one such diner, and a fan of the band? If so, you might have zoned out over your food and imagined the band members, themselves high on the Iguana’s killer mole dishes (¡y cervezas, órale!), whipping out Sharpies and making their mark, which has become the cool nucleus of the green Red Iguana wall. n

It must be analogous to Zorro carving his trademark Z, a monument to some mythic moment in time. Alas, Los Lobos aren’t swordsmen or banditos or even mariachis. In fact, the way Louie Perez tells it, they were just another band from East Los Angeles, rolling through town when their hunger led them to the restaurant that has become Utah’s home for “Killer Mexican Food.”


“Oh yeah!” says Perez while noting that the Santa Ana winds have cleared the skies to reveal the mountains near his California home. “We’ve got a lot of history [at the Red Iguana].”


Although the story is simple, it is not without a semi-biblical tone. Los Lobos, not yet famous for their now-landmark albums How Will the Wolf Survive? and Kiko or their lone hit, a cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” were to play Salt Lake City’s long-gone venue The Rainbow. “We were lookin’ around for someplace to eat,” says Perez, “and we kinda just stumbled upon this place. And it was good.”


As for the story behind signing the Wall, Perez says he remembers only one detail: “I used my right hand.” Los Lobos’ meeting with the late Ramon Cardenas Jr.—the Red Iguana’s founder and “Chef Chingón,” and a Paul Bunyan-esque local legend—is of course more epic. “As we started to come [to Salt Lake City] more often, we’d frequent the restaurant. And ultimately, we got to know Ramon and became really good friends. He’d always be pushin’ all these different moles that he had … and I saw those walls transform.”


Today, those walls feature a plethora of famosos including Dick Dale, Alejandro Escovedo, ZZ Top and Elvira (Mistress of the Dark)—a scant representation of the celebrities who, from past experience or passionate word-of-mouth, make a point to hit the restaurant when they pass through. Perez says that Cardenas, who dies in 2004, became the host for rock & roll in the city, “because you look on the wall and you see The Blasters, The Paladins … all these artists would come there and he would pretty much hand them the key to the city. Except the key was wrapped in a tortilla [laughs].”


What Los Lobos found at the Red Iguana wasn’t just good food or a new buddy. In Cardenas, they found a kindred spirit whose epicurean ethos was like their musical approach. “He was phenomenal in the kitchen,” Perez recalls. “The combination of the eclectic and the traditional met in a very cool way. That’s what he did, like Los Lobos have combined many musical genres to create this other sound.” Cardenas would come to the show and effusively enjoy the music, then bring the band back to the restaurant for after-hours reciprocation. And once, Los Lobos played in the restaurant’s parking lot.


“I don’t think he doted on us particularly,” says Perez, a vegetarian for whom Ramon would create special dishes. “I think he just loved music so much.” And, appropriately, Chef Chingón “had incredible taste. Whenever a cool band would come to town, they were at the Red Iguana. “He became a very cool, cool friend for many years. Our connection with them—it’s still going. We miss him, but we still stop by to see what’s going on.”


Last time Los Lobos played Salt Lake City, it was an in-and-out affair, part of a tour with Los Lonely Boys. “We just got to the gig, then back in the bus [to travel] overnight. So we didn’t get to make it.” But “hopefully,” Perez and his bandmates can take time out for a visit when Los Lobos plays a special acoustic show this Thursday at Kingsbury Hall. When they reunite with the Cardenas family, it will be a new chapter, as opposed to a poignant postscript, in the Los Lobos-Red Iguana story. 


Los Lobos
nKingsbury Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, Thursday, Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m.

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