736 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City ; 801-322-1489
This veteran gem of a restaurant continues to serve consistently good Mexican cuisine. Professional service. Great margaritas.
Hours: M-Th, 11 am-10 pm; F, 10 am-11 pm; S, 10 am-11 pm; Su, 10 am-9pm
Liquor: Full Service
Corkage: $ 4.50
Reservations: For large parties only
Recommended Dishes: Encurtidos, puntas de filete (top sirloin tips) a la nortena with almond mole.
July 2, 2008
Mexican fare that's consistently great
By Lesli J. Neilson
I had heard from friends and colleagues that the notoriously long waits at Red Iguana, an institution in Salt Lake City for more than two decades, seemed shorter lately and the food was not as good.
They were wrong on the first observation. My dining companions and I waited for 45 minutes on a recent weeknight at the venerable Mexican restaurant. (Had I known, I could have called ahead and made reservations for our party of six.)
What about the alleged declining food? Wrong again.
Chips and salsa were waiting as we settled into our seats at the back of the restaurant. The décor, brightly colored walls and loud oilcloth tablecloths, matched the rest of the eclectic restaurant but the menu was difficult to read in the poorly lit room. A round of great-tasting margaritas ($5.25-$6.25), Mexican beers ($3-$4.35) and appetizers smoothed things out instantly.
Red Iguana has seven moles on the menu. Amazingly, these complex sauces, which are extremely time consuming to make, are all prepared in-house, with a number of fresh ingredients including roasted chiles, pumpkin seeds, raisins, tomatoes, almonds, garlic, onions, spices and chocolate.
The choices include: pipian (pumpkin seed/medium-hot), negro (black/medium-hot), verde (green/medium), poblano (reddish-brown/medium), coloradito (reddish-orange/medium), amarillo (yellow/hot) and, my favorite, almendras (almonds/mild).
On the dinner menu, that luscious almond mole blankets juicy top sirloin tips sauteed with bacon, serranos, onions and tomatoes in the puntas de filete a la norteña ($13.40) while mole poblano tops refreshing enchiladas suizas ($7.90), flour tortillas filled with avocado slices and sour cream chicken. Our least favorite was the enmoladas ($7.95) -- refried bean-filled corn tortilla triangles coated with mole negro -- which was flat compared to the other mole dishes.
A five-mole sampler is not on the appetizer menu but the staff is glad to make it -- gratis -- for those unfamiliar with mole.
Portion sizes at Red Iguana are big, so some diners may skip appetizers, but that would be a mistake. The encurtidos ($5.95) are exceptional. Usually not one for serious heat, I could have had another of the egg batter-dipped and fried pickled jalapeños filled with shrimp and queso ranchero (sort of like crumbled goat cheese), topped with delicate red salsa española with guacamole on the side.
Besides the 79 menu items -- the majority in the $10 range -- there also are daily specials, including a well-crafted relleno-style poblano chile ($9.99) stuffed with ground beef, golden raisins and dried peaches covered in salsa española.
Cochinita pibil ($11.60), pork loin that gets an achiote-citrus rub and is then roasted and shredded, and chile verde ($9.95), tender cubed pork cooked in green chile and tomatillo sauce, were both successful dishes. I preferred the refried beans over the somewhat bland black beans that came with the chile verde.
For dessert, sopapillas ($2.95), copious, deep-fried and sweet, outshined tres leches cake ($3.45), fried ice cream ($3.95) and flan ($4.25).
Service was spectacular. Our server was affable, accommodating and knowledgeable. When posed with an obscure question, she promptly returned with the answer. My friends were wrong again. With food this great, I would have waited even longer to eat at Red Iguana.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.
Nov. 26, 2004
By Nancy Hobbs
Red Iguana has to be doing more than a few things right to attract lines outside the door for two decades. As a suitably impressed diner there more than 10 years ago, I figured I was due an update. I've seen the lines every time I drive North Temple, which, being far beyond my home turf, is generally coming from or going to the airport.
Then last February, I was saddened to hear of the untimely death of Red Iguana's executive chef Ramon Cardenas Jr., at the too-young age of 42 from a brain hemorrhage. Again, driving by and seeing the touching memorial of flowers and gifts at the restaurant door reminded me that my absence was my loss; I hoped the Cardenas family, which opened the restaurant in 1985, would be able to continue without him.
Loyal patrons, with the help of chef Luis Heredia, assure that it will. The restaurant, which has expanded several times beyond its original size, now seats 90 diners in several small rooms. And with constant turnover from the usual 11 a.m. opening until as late as 11 p.m., dining-room manager Elizabeth Lopez likely isn't far off when she guesses the kitchen serves "probably 1,000" on busy weekend nights.
Even so, our wait on a recent Friday night, with a line long enough to make us question our sanity, was less than the projected 20 minutes. Twenty years has obviously taught the owners that one secret to its success is maintaining its well-oiled machinery, from hostesses and busers to waiters and, of course, the kitchen line.
Though we never felt hurried, service was so prompt and efficient on both of our visits that we were finished in less time than anticipated. That's all the more impressive considering the size of the menu: It takes more than a few minutes just to read through the five-dozen entrées and their descriptions.
For fans of mole -- the complex sauces of Mexico made with all types of spices, chiles, nuts and even chocolate -- this is Nirvana, serving seven distinctive moles with origins supposedly dating back to Montezuma and his Aztec empire.
I opted for enchiladas suizas ($6.50), with chicken, avocado and sour cream wrapped in flour tortillas and topped with the classic mole poblano, made with peanuts, walnuts, almonds and chocolate. The mole was dark and rich, with the many flavors melding into a fragrant and luscious sauce.
Moles aren't for everyone; the concoctions are anything but subdued. But there is plenty more on the menu.
The fajitas are a self-contained feast of grilled onions and peppers, along with a choice of thinly sliced top sirloin or shrimp, delivered to the table still sizzling on a cast-iron platter ($10-$11). Tortillas and garnishes are served alongside, so you can roll up your own at the table.
Likewise with the terrific carnitas, containing pieces of pork cooked to the utmost tenderness with a perfect complement of spices ($9.95).
Even the combination plates, all in the $10 range, were a pleasant surprise here. I often shy away from these choices because, besides being way too much food, they tend to arrive with everything swimming in a gooey enchilada sauce and melted cheese. By the time I get to the "crispy" taco, it's soaked through and falls apart.
Red Iguana's combination meals likewise pack a ton of food onto a plate, but it was all so good, we ate almost everything. What I couldn't finish at the restaurant, I enjoyed for lunch the next day.
The shredded-beef tacos were made with fresh cooked shells rather than the pre-molded variety, and the chile verde inside the Mexican plate burrito was nice and spicy, with big chunks of tender pork in a sauce so tasty, you might wish it drowned everything else on the plate.
Suffice to say that everything tried at Red Iguana, from the massive platter of Killer Nachos to the fried ice cream -- a flour tortilla wrapped around ice cream and flash-fried -- was worth waiting for.
No wonder the lines never dwindle.
August 10, 2001
Venerable Red Iguana Still Has Some Bite
By Anne Wilson
In the 15 years since opening on a West Side block of North Temple, the Red Iguana has gained a cult-like following. How else to explain why people with other things to do would wait on a sidewalk for up to 50 minutes for no-frills Mexican food?
This modest cantina serves consistently good grub (most of it anyway), but the food itself doesn't rate a 50-minute wait. There is something else at work here, a comfort level that stems from 15 years of same-family ownership.
The menu hasn't changed much, neither the warren of small, crowded rooms and crazy-colored walls, and some of the servers have been delivering Iguana plates (enchilada, chile relleno, taco, rice and beans for $9.85) for years. It's the kind of place a guy can walk into 30 minutes after closing and still get an order of "killer nachos" because his pregnant wife has a craving.
Ramon and Maria Cardenas trace the ancestry of their restaurant to a place called Casa Grande, which they opened in 1965 on 300 West in Salt Lake City. Red Iguana was launched in its present site in 1986. Most of the recipes were Maria's; in her hometown of Chihuahua, she was a partner in a catering business. The couple managed one restaurant and owned another in San Francisco before moving to Utah. (Cardenas' success led him to start another restaurant, the Blue Iguana, which he no longer owns due to a series of events he sums up simply as a "long story.")
The Cardenases are now retired, although Ramon is in the Red Iguana nearly every day. The couple's son, Ramon Jr., does the cooking while grandson Antonio is manager. The most recent interesting change at the Red Iguana is the return of hard liquor, gone since Cardenas relinquished the license eight years ago because of unspecified "management problems." While the bar is being fully stocked, the restaurant is serving margaritas in addition to a selection of Mexican and domestic beer.
Ramon Cardenas says the family, looking ahead to the 2002 Olympics, applied for a liquor license to stay competitive, although the place is regularly mobbed. During the noon hour and peak dinner hours, waits are common, aggravated by a lax wait list system. Go early or late to avoid standing in line on the sidewalk.
Once you're in, the next difficult task is choosing from Red Iguana's menu. There are the usual suspects: enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, burritos, flautas and chile rellenos, served in all sorts of combinations. The servings are generous and hot, with flavorful sauces and fresh vegetable garnishes. Prices are reasonable, ranging from $5.95 for the killer nachos (topped with chile verde chorizo, a spicy sausage) to $10.60 for the Red Iguana plate with an enchilada, beef taquito, flauta, chile relleno and tostada, with a fistful of guacamole and sour cream added for emphasis.
But there is more adventurous fare, including a selection of exotic moles made with chiles, fruit, nuts and sometimes just enough chocolate to add color and richness. The red pipian mole is mildly spicy, made with pumpkin seeds, delicious with chunks of tender chicken ($10.95). Rice and refried beans are served on the side.
Our encounter with the mole coloradito ($10.95) was not as positive. The sauce wasn't bad -- tangy and smoky, with a sour bite -- but the pork was overcooked to the point of toughness and didn't seem fresh.
The other letdown was a dish billed as a house special, Pollo a la Moreliana ($10.95). This large plate of chicken and rice isn't impressive: too much saucy rice (although the sauce is delicious) and cheap cuts of chicken, legs and a wing.
A better special is enchiladas a la lago salada, two corn tortillas filled with spicy chorizo and potatoes, topped with fresh cream and an avocado slice ($7.25). It comes with a lettuce "taquito," a piece of iceberg lettuce filled with a surprise of wonderfully rich chicken salad.
There aren't many surprises at the Red Iguana, which is something its patrons appreciate. They come for "killer" Mexican food and, for the most part, they get it. And that's the whole enchilada.
The Red Iguana
736 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City; 322-5418
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
Prices: $5 to $20
Child's Menu: No
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Outdoor Dining: No
Parking: Adjacent lot
Credit Cards: All major
November 24, 1994
Red Iguana: No jingles or gimmicks — just great Mexican food at a fair price
In the world of Mexican dining, two truths guide our selections:
-- Out-of-the-way ``joints'' will always have the best service.
-- Mexican restaurants that do not have a theme or jingle will be authentic and,
These truths are proven once again with a visit to The Red Iguana. We were served authentic Mexican cuisine, and we were served quickly. There's a bonus: We had money left in the wallet . . . or at least the checking account.
The Red Iguana is compact. When you enter, you stand in the 3-foot by 4-foot spot allotted for waiting, and there you are. You feel like you should wave at your fellow patrons, perhaps introduce yourself and your party and state your reason for coming. It's awkward, but in less than a minute a host will lead you to your table and the easy atmosphere settles in. (Be aware, the tables are close together and could present difficulty for patrons in wheelchairs.) The menu is the same for lunch and dinner and offers a good variety of traditional Mexican dinners and a few lesser-known items. For starters, try the chips with the spicy guacamole. The Red Iguana offers a good garlic soup for $2.65. There are several other soups, including a black bean chili at $3, $3.75 with meat.
My favorite dish is the chili verde, and it is certainly one of the best in Salt Lake. Tender pork with a verde (green) sauce that lets you know its there but doesn't overpower your palate. You can have the chili verde either as a burrito entree ($3.95) or with tortillas, rice, beans and a small lettuce salad ($5.95.)
The mole sauce is a little more subtle than we like, but still delicious and certainly worth trying especially if you haven't ventured into this realm of Mexican cuisine. Mole dishes run from $6.70 to $7.10.
Paella is offered with 24-hour advance notice. We haven't tried it, but given the Red Iguana's passion for authenticity, it seems a good bet. Parrillada is a seafood lovers dream -- grilled lobster, shrimp, scallops, fish and crab ($13.)
Vegetarian items on the menu include papadzules, pumpkin-seed paste and chopped hard-boiled egg with green chilies and tomatoes ($4.95).
You also can select more traditional combination plates. The high end is ``The Red Iguana'': cheese enchilada, taquito, taco, flauta, chile relleno and tostada ($7.60) It is almost enough for two. While the chile relleno did not have enough spice and too much breading for our tastes, the taquitos are excellent. We prefer the beef taquito smothered in guacamole. The fajitas were generous in meat, vegetables and spicing. The Red Iguana is colorful and cheerful. It does have plastic flowers hanging on the walls, but that can be forgiven, for there's nothing artificial about its authentic Mexican food.
The Red Iguana
736 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City, 322-1489
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted
Liquor: Beer only
Smoking area: Yes
Children's menu: No
Credit cards: No