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Mexican food in Utah? Red Iguana is the real deal

Published: 03/28/2013

(Larry Olmsted, USA TODAY) The scene:The Red Iguana sits on a busy commercial street in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City, close to downtown and most of the big hotels. It is freestanding, with a large parking lot on one side and a creepy shuttered motel on the other. The restaurant appears as a simple storefront, but it is much deeper than it looks, with several hidden dining rooms holding scores of diners. Nonetheless, there is always a crowd waiting on foot or benches outside the door, even in the middle of winter, and when it gets cold, the staff is known to pass hot cider to those patiently waiting. On a low-season Wednesday night, the wait for four was more than an hour, and on weekends it typically reaches two hours.

The restaurant has been here since 1985. With its well-worn sign and sticker-festooned front door, Red Iguana has the authentic air of a neighborhood joint, which it is, except that its many local fans come from far beyond the neighborhood. Many repeat visitors to Salt Lake make it a point to eat here on every trip, while locals come more often. The crowd is widely varied, from straight-off-the-slopes skiers to families to hipsters; a car-service SUV rolled up while I waited and dispensed eight suit-and-tie wearing conventioneers who obviously knew the place. Once you get inside, the style is homey casual, with colorful green and red painted walls, plastic tablecloths with a floral tropical print and mismatched furniture. Everything about it is warm and welcoming. A second location, Red Iguana 2 is a few blocks away, and they recently opened a smaller fast food-style outlet, Taste of Red Iguana, serving breakfast and lunch only, in the new downtown City Creek open air mall.

Reason to visit: Mole dishes, Puntas de Filete, Lomo de Puerco, Mexican-American standards, and margaritas.

The food: The menu is enormous and you'd have to eat here dozens of times to make a big enough dent in it to really know your favorite. It is also enormously varied. As a result it has everything from what would be considered Americanized Mexican dishes such as chimichangas, burritos and tons of enchiladas and tacos, to much more eclectic offerings like Papadzules (corn tortillas filled with sliced egg and pumpkin seeds, topped with mole verde and cheese), Chile Colorado (diced sirloin simmered in a dried chile and tomato sauce), and Pescado a la Veracruzana (fresh fish of the day dusted with flour, paprika and sesame seeds, pan fried then simmered in a complex tomato sauce and served with grilled pineapple).The menu is divided into several subcategories like "Marvels of Mexico," "Traditional Mexican Dishes," "Red Iguana Signature Dishes," and "Mole."

Fortunately I dined with six regulars and was able to get advice and sample many dishes. Their overwhelming advice? The Red Iguana is known for its mole sauces, the specialty of the house and served in no less than seven distinct styles, each available on its own as sort of a stew with matched meat or in signature mole-based dishes. I tried every style, from the spiciest Mole Amarillo (golden raisins, yellow tomatoes, yellow zucchini and dried yellow chiles) to the most popular, the dark, sweet, spicy Mole Negro (dried dark chiles, black pasilla peppers, Mexican chocolate, raisins, peanuts, walnuts and bananas) to the fruity, chutney-like Mole Coloradito (pine nuts, almonds, peanuts, dried chiles, fresh chile poblano and Mexican chocolate). They range in color from yellow to green to red to very dark brown and are all quite tasty. Friendly servers are happy to lay out a sample plate with a spoonful of each and you can taste them on crunchy house-made tortilla chips before deciding what to order.

While the moles stole the day, everything at my table was wonderful, even the most basic Mexican dishes on Red Iguana's combination plate: a cheese enchilada, beef taco, beef flauta, chili relleno and beef tostada. Each was fresh and flavorful, with the quality of the meat and cheese coming through. This was classic Mexican food supercharged. But the more complex dishes were even better. The most popular item on the menu is the stew-like Puntas de Filete a la Nortena, sirloin strips and bacon sautéed with jalapeños, onions and fresh tomatoes with creamy almond mole. It was rich and delicious, just spicy enough to elicit a few beads of sweat but not enough to ruin your taste buds. Another favorite was the Lomo de Puerco en Mole de Almendras: thick slices of roast pork loin that has been stuffed with dried fruit and sun-dried tomatoes, in almond mole with pine nuts and Swiss chard. A surprise standout was the enchiladas suizas: chicken enchiladas with avocado and jack cheese that are amped up by being covered in Mole Poblano. Given the amount of work that goes into these dishes, the prices are quite fair, with only a couple of the most elaborate specialty plates topping $15.