Is there a Utah restaurant more beloved, with more of a loyal customer base than Red Iguana? I don’t think so. It’s unusual for there not to be people lined up waiting for tables at the Red Iguana on W. North Temple at all times of the day and night. I know people visiting from out of town who always make Red Iguana the first stop on their way in from the SLC Airport, including the fellas from Los Lobos – OG Red Iguana customers.
But did you know that the W. North Temple Red Iguana was not the original location? In 1985 the Cardenas family – who had launched Casa Grande restaurant in 1965 – opened Red Iguana on 300 West between 1st & 2nd South. That tiny eatery, which accommodated only 18 guests, was destroyed by fire in 1986, but ultimately led to the opening of the Red Iguana we all know and love on W. North Temple, followed in 2011 by Red Iguana 2 a couple blocks away, and then Taste of Red Iguana in City Creek Center. Red Iguana has been feeding hungry customers killer Mexican food for nearly four decades.
I still miss the larger than life Ramon Cardenas Jr. – the face of Red Iguana until his sudden passing in 2004. But family-run Red Iguana has always been in very good hands, owned and operated after Ramon’s death by his sister, Lucy Cardenas, and her husband, Bill Coker, and some 150+ faithful employees. Red Iguana, simply put, is timeless.
Part of the attraction is the vibrant, eclectic, sometimes kitschy decor and ambiance of Red Iguana and Red Iguana 2. They are noisy (in the best way), colorful, bustling restaurants with a vibe all their own. If you’re looking for a quiet, romantic dinner, or cookie cutter franchise fare, Red Iguana ain’t the place. But for gathering with friends or family for great from-scratch Mexican food in a high-energy eatery for a ripping good time, this is definitely the place.
It’s a spot my son, Hank, always wants to hit up when he visits from his law school back east. So recently, we did just that – enjoyed a family meal at Red Iguana 2. Meals at Red Iguana begin with a complimentary bowl of chips with house-made salsa roja. The salsa and fresh chips from the kitchen are simply sensational. Other great appetizers include house-made guacamole, nachos, and rajas de chile poblano con queso, which is roasted poblano chile strips sauteed with tomatoes and onions, topped with melted jack cheese and served with a choice of flour or corn tortillas.
Red Iguana serves up a vast array of Mexican and Southwestern dishes that range from Oaxacan-style moles, and carnitas a la Michoacán, to north-of-the-border burritos and chimichangas, Yucatan cochinita pibil and papadzules, American- and Mexican-style tacos, machaca with eggs in the style of Monterrey, Sonoran-style shrimp, and much, much more. The extensive menu is mind-boggling so order up a margarita or two while you peruse it. The range of taco varieties alone is daunting. Vegetarians might want to give the tacos de hongos ($13.99) a try. It’s a generous dish of three grilled corn tortillas stuffed with sauteed mushrooms, melted jack cheese, and served with a dollop of guacamole and refried beans on the side.
Enchiladas are a Red Iguana specialty and there are a number of enchilada options available for every palate. The traditional enchiladas offer guests a choice of shredded chicken, beef, or cheese stuffings in two corn tortillas, topped with house-made dried red chile powder enchilada sauce (one of the best I’ve ever tried), topped with melted jack cheese and served with rice and beans. With that in mind, there are at least seven enchilada variations, including Suizas, verdes, poblanas, amarillas, mango, entomatadas, and rancheras. A popular favorite is enchiladas Suizas (Swiss), in which two corn tortillas are stuffed with sour cream chicken and avocado, topped with a rich mole poblano sauce, and finished with melted jack cheese and a splash of sour cream ($14.49). It’s worth mentioning that the signature moles at Red Iguana are as authentic as anything I ever tasted in Oaxaca and I highly recommend grabbing some mole to take home with you. Homemade mole varieties include coloradito, poblano, negro, amarillo, verde, and red pipian.
Sides at Red Iguana include extra mole, sour cream, pico de gallo, Spanish or white rice, refried or black beans, chile verde or colorado, fried plantain, French fries, tortillas (flour or corn), guacamole, and salsa. For my money, you can’t beat the creamy refried beans topped with melted cheese at Red Iguana. I suspect lard is involved.
You’ll see the aforementioned late Ramon Cardenas Jr’s name peppered lovingly throughout the menu, including Ramon Jr’s Quesadailla San Francisco and Ramon’s Famous Fish Tacos ($21.99), which are my wife’s favorite fish tacos, bar none. In particular, she likes that the mahi mahi morsels (or the fish of the day) aren’t breaded and fried, but rather seasoned and grilled, then served in soft corn tortillas with house-made tangy coleslaw, cucumber salsa, fresh lime wedges, and Spanish rice.
I have no idea how many times I’ve eaten at Red Iguana over the years. LOTS. And although there are many, many dishes on the menu that I’ve loved, I somehow find myself returning, more often than not, to their chile colorado ($15.99). For the longest time I thought this was a dish from Colorado, given the name. Nope. It’s called colorado which I was told means “colored red” in Spanish. The red color and deep, dark flavor of Red Iguana’s chile colorado comes from diced top sirloin beef which is seasoned and slowly simmered until super tender in a sauce of dried red chile powder and tomatoes. It comes served with rice and beans and a choice of corn or flour tortillas and is absolutely killer colorado.
With the preponderance of street taco joints and Mexican eateries serving birria, vampiros, pozole, menudo and such, Red Iguana critics sometimes hammer the place for not being “authentic” enough. Well, I don’t really care. Yes, some dishes – the moles, for example – are about as authentically Mexican as you can get. Others, like the aforementioned chimichangas and fajitas are decidedly Tex-Mex. Whatever your criteria for authenticity might be, the way I judge food is whether or not it tastes GREAT. And I’ve rarely encountered any dish at Red Iguana that didn’t taste great, besides being a smokin’ bang for the dining buck. Which is why there are often lines of people outside waiting for tables. But, I’ve got good news on that front too: Red Iguana and Red Iguana 2 now offer reservations via RESY. Que bueno!
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week: “I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.” – Anthony Bourdain