When I heard that Red Iguana was opening a second location, I pictured it in the suburbs, in a brand-new shopping center with tasteful stacked-stone accents.
No more gritty west-side North Temple ambience, I figured: no more sharing the block with a plasma-donation center and the Blue Boutique.
The first time I ever visited Red Iguana, a line was out the door and there were bullet holes in the front window; even if the lines remained, I thought the new place would feel different.
I felt a little sad about it.
But I didn't need to worry. Red Iguana 2 is open for business — a block south of Red Iguana 1. The rough, spittin'-distance-from-the-highway ambience is replaced by a rough, spittin'-distance-from-the-trains vibe. The new place is, well, newer, shinier around the edges.
There's a long red bar along the west wall that actually sparkles.
But the color scheme is the same, the service is great and, mercifully, the food is just the same as it has always been: Red Iguana serves some of the finest Mexican food in the country, with moles that are hands-down the best I've ever had.
I hear the new shop was opened to (1) offer Red Iguana's chefs a more expansive kitchen and/or (2) alleviate crowding at Red Iguana 1. The new kitchen is gleamingly pretty, but the crowds remain large. We showed up for lunch at 2 p.m. and still had to wait. In fact, we had difficulty finding parking in the crowded lot and had to settle for a spot on the street.
The new lobby is funky-cool, with colored glass-block windows that my kids enjoyed looking through, but based on our experience, they're going to need more benches. People love Red Iguana; there's no escaping that.
However, we waited only about 10 minutes (the hostess had estimated 20) and were seated right in the middle of the open, airy dining space, strung overhead with lights and with an open view of the trains passing frequently by on South Temple.
There are chips and very good salsa, of course, but we also had super-fresh guacamole, creamy and rich with tomato, onion and cilantro.
I also tried the encurtidos appetizer, a deliciously spicy, ramped-up chile relleno consisting of pickled jalapenos stuffed with shrimp and queso ranchero, and fried in soft, airy egg batter, topped with smooth red salsa espanola.
Three of the kids with us — my son, my middle daughter and that daughter's friend — had the kids' cheese quesadilla, salty and chewy wedges of cheese-filled tortilla served with a pineapple slice. They shared plates of refried beans sprinkled with Mexican cheese and seasoned red rice with corn and peas.
Our oldest had the flautas, thin crisp-fried cigars of juicy shredded beef and tortilla. My youngest daughter had the sopa de queso, a comfortingly mellow blend of Anaheim chiles, tender diced potatoes, onions and tomatoes in a savory, light broth, with scads of oozy melted cheese.
My husband had his go-to Mexican meal, the chicken chimichanga, which at Red Iguana is a big, crisp-tender bundle of tortilla-wrapped chicken, topped with salsa espanola and Jack cheese.
I almost always have one of two things at Red Iguana: the mole poblano or the chile verde burritos, both of which have ruined me for those dishes at most other restaurants. They're so good, it's hard to think about not having them.
But I branched out a little, staying with the moles but going with the (deep breath, now) lomo de puerco en mole de almendras. What you get is wonderful rolled pork loin, stuffed with tomatoes, dried fruit, pine nuts and Swiss chard. It's resting on a mole of almonds, various chiles, yellow zucchini, milk, onions and peanut butter.