Red Iguana restaurant review

Late afternoon dinner review

A recent conversation over at Chow Hound brought up a terrible truth, the fact that I had never ever stepped foot into Red Iguana. Being a self-confessed foodie, this glaring dining omission could be considered sacrilege to to some I would imagine. My excuse? Simply put, I had heard that wait times for tables could get to be 45 minutes and beyond. And as most of friends will attest, I’m not a very patient man. (Wen’s note – I attest!)

I idly mentioned this conversation to Wendi, and before I knew it, a plan was hatched to try Salt Lake City’s most lauded Mexican restaurant. The theory was that we would plan our visit for a time between lunch and dinner on a Saturday afternoon. We conjectured that 3 p.m. was ideally placed between lunch and dinner and therefore, could possibly yield a quiet break from the famously long lines. We planned to sneak in and check the food out without the bustle of the crowds.

The plan failed almost immediately as we arrived to find a queue of about 15 people milling outside. Oh well, lesson learned, Red Iguana is probably packed from opening to closing time on the weekend. We ventured inside to put our names on the wait list, 20 minutes was the estimated wait, all in all not too bad. In fact, a good number of the people waiting seemed to be there for take out, which was brought out at regular intervals and whittled the waiting down to about eight people just as a huge rainstorm hit. Luckily, there was room for all of us in Red Iguana’s small main dining area, which also serves as their indoor waiting area.

We probably waited no more than 30 minutes, and finally our table was ready. We were led through the busy and cramped main room, past several smaller quirky side rooms, until we finally reached the back of the restaurant. This back room seemed to be a little less packed and featured four bigger tables for larger groups. As we sat, the first thing we noticed was the music. Unfortunately the background music was anything but, being played at such a volume as to make conversation a shouting match. The vividly red, yellow and green painted walls were decorated with the odd photograph and piece of memorabilia.

The drinks menu was pleasingly cheap. I went for a very drinkable Malbec ($5.00), our guest a glass of Iced Tea ($1.99) and Wendi the Pipino Margerita ($6.25). A cucumber-flavoured margarita was an instant hit, but Wendi said next time she would order it with salt.

Overwhelmed by choice, but knowing she wanted a combination plate, our guest was steered towards the Poblano Plate ($11.75) by our very accommodating waitress:

red iguana poblano plate

The plate was comprised of one sour cream chicken enchilada, a beef tacquito with sour cream and a beef tostada with side of guacamole. Three staple items, each of which impressed our guest.

Both myself and Wendi had seen Red Iguana on TV only a week prior, courtesy of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive In’s and Dives” show. Consequentially, we both had a good idea of what we wanted to taste on our first visits. Wendi wanted to see how Red Iguana’s mole fared and chose the Mole Verde ($14.95):

red iguana mole verde:

The menu described this light green sauce as “Fresh Poblano, Chile Guero, Jalapeno blended with Pepitas, Sesame Seeds, Basil, Onions, Zucchini and Avocados”. Chicken was Wendi’s choice of protein. A fairly standard side of rice and beans also accompanied the plate.

The mole was surprisingly rich and much more delicate than I would have thought, none of the flavours were overpowering. I recall mentioning the taste as “almost flowery”. Wendi enjoyed the mole, but as her tastes run to the spicy when it comes to Mexican food, she is going to try something different next time. The peppers in this particular blend definitely took a back seat to the rich nuts and avocado.

The menu offers seven distinct moles, from the lighter through to heavier Mexican chocolate flavoured varieties. I would love to try them all, which makes the lack of a mole sampler plate a bit disappointing. I guess it would be possible to make your own tasting menu, as the menu does offer separate 3oz portions of mole at $2.25. I’d bet you would get a few curious glances from the staff when you ordered all seven though.

Going back to the TV show we watched, If I recall correctly we watched the present proprietor (Lucy Cardenas) make the delicious looking Tacos Don Ramon ($9.00). Three tacos of top sirlon tips and house made chorizo looked heavenly to me. The show demonstrated how the taco’s were slightly basted with the Chorizo “juice” before frying on the hot plate, for a delicious crunch. Spice, sausage, grease, tacos, I had to try them:

red iguana tacos don ramon

and on the inside:

red iguana tacos don ramon 2

Probably the best taco I have had in as long as I can remember, probably even tastier than they looked on TV. The home made chorizo had an enjoyable spicy bite that never threatened to become overpowering. The meat was juicy and oh-so greasy, in the good way. Every bite of the fresh and light side of Pico de Gallo was needed to balance the grease.

All three of us largely agreed it was the best Mexican meal we had eaten in some time. Not exactly light years beyond competitors, but considerably ahead of them I would say.

So the big question, would I wait for 45 minutes for dinner at Red Iguana? For me personally, no, but I should expand on that. The food was great, there is no doubt about that, but not so out of this world impressive that I would turn up and queue for a long period. I also can’t comment on what wait times are like mid-week, hopefully someone will clue me in? (Wen’s note – I have been craving Red Iguana like crazy since we went, and would definitely endure the wait again in a heartbeat. There are plenty of benches out front to make the wait more comfortable, and I’m dying to try the fish tacos.)

That said, I can’t think of any restaurant where I would wait for nearly an hour to be seated. If Red Iguana implemented a reservation system, I’m sure I would be there often. I also think we will be grabbing the odd take-out order as well in the future. Wendi has already mentioned on more than one occasion, her hankering for another bite of their delicious chorizo filled tacos.

Now here’s a thought for the owners, constant queues out of the door? Maybe it’s time to open a new location. May I suggest Sugarhouse?

Come and discuss this review and other Salt Lake City restaurants on our new foodie discussion forum here.

Red Iguana is located at 736 W North Temple Salt Lake City, UT 84116. Their phone number is 801 322 1489.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. If you ask your server for a mole sampler they are more than happy to bring all or select moles for you to try. Keep in mind this is free of charge 😉

  2. I agree with Harley – definitely ask for the mole sampler.

    And you haven’t really experienced Red Iguana until you try one of their signature dishes. Puntas de Filete a la Norteña and the Cochinita Pibil. The carnitas are fantastic too.

    Would you wait 45 minutes for Red Iguana? Try those signature dishes before you answer that question.

    P.S. I typically hit the place around 3 pm on a Friday or Saturday too, and haven’t encountered a line yet at that time. Perhaps your experience was a fluke?

  3. I’d definitely like to know when would be best to visit, I thought it’d be empty too, but there were plenty of people waiting.

    As for their specials they did look really good to me – if we had not have seen the TV show the week prior, I would have probably tried one.

    If I have no idea of a menu, I’ll generally always go with their listed specials. Hey, if the chef says that’s their best stuff, who am I to argue 🙂

  4. I do agree as far as the wait lines are concerned. I LOVE Red Iguana, but I rarely go. I will say that I’ve never had to wait at the Blue Iguana downtown – I don’t know if they’re in anyway related -but I find the moles just as good.

    And I have to agree with Chris – my absolute favorite is the Puntas de Filete a la Norteña. The almond mole served with this dish is a perfect blend of fiery and flavorful.

  5. Don’t quote me on this, but at some point I think the two Iguanas were owned by the same family (Cardenas). They sold the Blue Iguana on to new owners years ago.

    I think that is correct, but I could have dreamt it 🙂

  6. I visited Red Iguana twice in September, after having not visited for a year. The first time was with a party of four (plus a baby) on a weeknight, and we waited an hour or more for a table. I had the Cochinita Pibil, which was delicious but became monotonous towards the end of the dish. The second time we were with a party of seven, and we were able to make a reservation for this larger party. We were seated upon arrival. I tried the mole sampler (complimentary dabs of all of the moles, but one – scoop them up with chips or a tortilla – the mole amarillo is my favorite that comes on the sampler), but decided on the Puntas Filete a la Nortena. This was the winner of the table. The almond mole was complex and perfect, the sirloin tips tender and flavorful, and the essence of thick-cut bacon permeated the dish. The portions was gigantic, I must say. I am a big eater, and there was more than enough for the next day’s lunch.

    Other favorites there include the Encurtidos appetizer, enmoladas, chilaquiles, and enchiladas suizas. Based on your recommendation, I’m going to try the Tacos Don Ramon next time.

    In short (haha, *much* too late for that!), perhaps you should get a bunch of SLC chowhounds together, make a reservation, and avoid the wait!

  7. As a native of New Mexico, I have always been amazed at how ignorant Utahns are as to what constitutes good Mexican food. The Red Iguana is a perfect example. In the past fifteen years, I have eaten at the Red Iguana a total of three times. The first two times, I had what were easily the WORST Mexican meals of my fifty years. If a restaurant in New Mexico had attempted to serve what was served to me those two times, the local clientele would’ve burned the place to the ground! The last time I ate at the Red Iguana, I waited ~ 1 hour to eat what was at best a very pedestrian attempt at enchiladas.

    Salt Lake has great Italian, Thai, Japanese, and other types of restaurants. Is the Red Iguana the best it can offer for a Mexican restaurant? I hope not.

  8. Forrest: I’m by no means an expert on the Red Iguana, I’m still only on one visit. Which I aim to build on.

    What regulars tell me though, is to stay clear of the staid items like enchiladas and burritos. Instead go for the more unique options such as Papadzules, Entomatadas, Pescado Veracruzana or Puntas De Filete.

  9. Ramon’s Quesadilla San Francisco is easily the most delicious item I’ve ever had at a Mexican restaurant. Substitute the meat for black beans and you have yourself a winner.

    The other stuff is OK, but the Quesadilla is fantastic.

  10. The Red Iguana is the bomb! Don’t forget it for a breakfast option too. We recently had a breakfast burrito which was, as usual, delicious and filling. I really don’t understand how anyone could knock this place, it’s simply a Salt Lake Classic! Just to put another option on the table though, we went to a place called La Paisa last night (3200 W I believe, just off the beehive 201) and had an incredible meal. This place is known for its molcahetes and it was divine (and enough to feed 3-4 people). We got the guacamole with complimentary (and extremely good) chips and salsa, margaritas, and the molcahete supreme with shrimp, chicken, and steak cooked in a green sauce along with other goodies. The margaritas were the best I’ve had in Salt Lake, not sweet, not bitter, just right. The molcahete came with freshly made corn tortillas, rice, and refried beans. The atmosphere is nice and they have live karaoke (mexican style) every night (according to the waiter) and dancing on the weekends. I’ve said enough, just go. Don’t look-up what a molcahete is if you don’t know, just go and be surprised! You won’t be disappointed! Just beware of the jalapenos unless you tolerate extreme heat!

    P.S. The waiter informed me molcahetes (usually $23 for two people) are half priced on Monday and Tuesday nights. We went on a Monday night and were pleased the restaurant was not dead! Stu, please try this one out and order the molcahete, I know you’ll be pleased you did!

  11. Sorry, correction, how novice of me.

    El Paisa
    2126 S 3200 W

    There are other locations. I haven’t tried them so I cannot comment on them.

  12. I opened this review to see what was being said about a tried and true “best” of Salt Lake restaurant. Kind of a test, I must say.
    Well, I was quite frankly surprised. As someone from New Mexico stated, this is not good Mexican food. Start with the chips and salsa…Really? Maybe someone who knows Mexican food should do a review for you as I feel that unfortunately you have fallen for the popularity as a indication of good. I grew up in So.California and lived in Texas. I have eaten at hundreds of Mexican food restaurants.
    It is only due to a lack of knowledge that Red Iguana is considered good. If you do not believe me… look around and try to find a Mexican in the restaurant.
    Oh by the way, if you want good Mexican Food try Julia’s on 1000 West. This is real Mexican food quality. I say this at the risk of disclosing the best secret in Utah but its time for them to get the business they deserve.

  13. As an aside Dorje, the ‘best of’ SLC section of our site, merely represents the best SLC restaurants we have visited, its not meant to be defacto by any means.

    I think Red Iguana is pretty good if you shy away from humdrum items like burritos, tacos etc. The Puntas de Filete a la Nortena and some of their moles are really quite good, regardless of type of cuisine.

    What did you have that you didn’t like?

    Also, I’ve heard good things about Julias.

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