Wednesday, August 24, 2011

As I’ve Been Asking,

“Is Salt Lake City a great food city, or what?”

On our final day in SLC, we are visiting a “Salt Lake City Essential” ( that is also the Number One restaurant on—the multi-award-winning Red Iguana. Yes, here in SLC is the best Mexican food we have ever eaten.

“Ramon and Maria Cardenas started in the restaurant business over forty years ago. Ramon was born in San Luis Potosi. Maria, born in Chihuahua, Mexico, passed away in 2002. Together, they shared a passion for Mexican cuisine, and created recipes and dishes proudly served as delicious expressions of their cultural background. The Red Iguana restaurant opened its doors in 1985 to resounding applause and numerous local and national awards.... Ramon and Maria created unique yet traditional Mexican recipes, now passed on to the Cardenas children who are proudly continuing the family tradition” (from the restaurant’s website).

“…the Red Iguana is one of the few Mexican joints anywhere that specializes in mole—the spicy sauce named for a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning ‘concoction’. Just as the colorful dining room nearly overwhelms the eyes, the amarillo mole served over chicken nearly overwhelms the taste buds with its fiery combination of aji amarillo and guajillo peppers, vegetables, and spices. Other enticing variations of mole include verde, negro, red pipian with peanuts and pumpkinseeds, and several more. The menu doesn't begin and end with mole, however: a full slate of Mexican standards, seafood, and egg dishes is available…” (

The restaurant was named the Best Mexican Restaurant 2011 by the Salt Lake City Weekly and a Fodor’s Choice 2010, but we first heard of this place on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2008. It was on our “maybe” list last summer, but after my eight months of (medical) semi-captivity in the Southwest, I didn’t have much of an appetite for Mexican food. In fact, if someone had placed a plate containing rice and beans in front of me, I probably would have dumped the contents over that person’s head. So, not wanting to be arrested for server assault, we gave the Red Iguana a pass. But we vowed to visit during this trip.

After battling massive street reconstruction, we arrived shortly after 1:00 p.m. to find both the parking lot and the restaurant close to full. After being led by the hostess through a labyrinth of hallways and small dining rooms, we were seated in a small room containing one table for two. From my seat, I was inspired by a print depicting a woman surrounded by chiles.

Soon thereafter a dish of the salsa arrived with a basket of warm tortilla chips. The salsa was extra spicy with smoky undertones and lots of Mexican oregano. It was hot. It was delicious. It was eaten.

The seven-page menu lists variations on all of your favorite Mexican restaurant specialties, but prepared in ways one seldom finds in your average Mexican restaurant. There are nachos, quesadillas, chile relleno, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, carnitas, chile verde, and chile Colorado. And then there are the moles. But we’ll get to them in a minute.

Chuck chose the day’s special—stacked enchiladas filled with ground beef, potatoes, and corn that were covered with an intensely flavored, but not spicy, red enchilada sauce. And on top of this, sat an egg. Scrambled in this case, per Chuck’s request. (If this order would have been mine I would have chosen over-easy so that the rich and creamy yolk would mingle with the enchilada sauce. But, then again, this is his enchilada.) I especially appreciate that authentic Mexican restaurants don’t use a harsh Old El Paso/Ortega-like seasoning. They let the flavors of the sauce lead the way. With his plate came a large portion of beautifully cooked (soft, but whole) black beans topped with just a modest amount of cheese and a side of yellow rice.

But the Red Iguana’s fame is primarily due to their seven house-made moles which can range from fiery hot to mild. I am most familiar with the chocolate-based moles and the Red Iguana offered three versions: Mole Coloradito with pine nuts, almonds, peanuts, dried chile chiuacle and guajillo chiles, blended with fresh chile poblano and Mexican chocolate and served over grilled pork loin; Mole Poblano made with guajillo and ancho dried chiles, peanuts, sesame seeds, walnuts, raisins, bananas, and Mexican chocolate and tossed with turkey; and Mole Negro with dried chile mulato, negro pasilla, Mexican chocolate, raisins, peanuts, walnuts, and bananas and tossed with chicken or turkey.

But I wanted to branch out and considered: the Mole Amarillo with golden raisins, yellow tomatoes, yellow zucchini, chile guajillo, and dried seasonal yellow chiles and tossed with chicken; the Mole Verde made with fresh chile poblano, chile guero and jalapeno and blended with pepitas, sesame seeds, basil, onions, zucchini, and avocados and tossed with turkey or chicken; Lomo de Puerco en Mole de Almendras made with almonds, chile guajillo, chile guero, yellow zucchini, milk, peanut butter, and onions and served with a roasted pork loin stuffed with dried fruit, sun-dried tomatoes, Swiss chard and pine nuts; and, my choice, the Red Pipian which is a pumpkin seed sauce made with dried chile guajillo, peanuts, pepitas, onions, and tomatoes and tossed with chicken.

My plate came with a side of refried bean, reddish rice that contained peas and corn, and two flour tortillas that tasted slightly of lime to help mop up the mole. I will admit that three-quarters of the rice and beans returned home with me for breakfast the next morning.

The medium spicy mole Red Pipian was outrageously good—maybe the best dish I have eaten in a Mexican restaurant. The large chunks of chicken breast were tender and juicy. With my first bite of the mole, I tasted pumpkin and then hints of cinnamon. Then the interwoven complexity of the ingredients took over, and all I noticed was the deliciousness of the whole. And, so that none of the mole would go to waste, I scraped the remainder over my “to go” rice and beans.

To finish off the meal with a sweet touch, we shared an order of the sopapillas—fried fritters that were topped with cinnamon, sugar, and honey and presented with a generous serving of good whipped cream drizzled with chocolate.

What a great meal. Another 5.0 Addie. What a great city. How soon can we return?

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