Hey folks! I’m back, and thanks to last night’s 12 hours of sleep, fully recovered from three days of amazing powder skiing, one trip to the dentist (for two fillings), and a red-eye flight back to NYC. Yes, I was a total zombie yesterday.
Beyond a career weekend of skiing for the four of us, the trip was also fantastic from a culinary standpoint – Salt Lake City’s Red Iguana was held by my three friends as best among the trip’s restaurants and I thought it was probably the best Mexican I’d ever had.
Salt Lake City literally has just about as many Mexican restaurants as New York has pizza joints. Between local chains like Taco Time, national chains like Del Taco and Taco Bell, and plenty of ma and pa places (like the afore-reviewed Lone Star Taqueria, also a big hit with my friends) scattered throughout the valley, Utahns are nuts for Mexican and Tex-Mex food.
It’s only this kind of market saturation that can produce a restaurant of true excellence – Darwinian forces combined with enough popular enthusiasm have produced a restaurant that professes to specialize in “pre-Hispanic food, imperial Aztec cuisine, and Montezuma’s table.” Best of all, for the tourists out there? It’s located at 736 West North Temple Street, about five easy minutes from SLC International Airport.
You might be asking what, exactly, constitutes this pre-Hispanic (though not necessarily pre-Columbian) food? One delicious word: Mole. The Red Iguana serves not one or two, but fully SEVEN different kinds of Mole, each of which is totally delicious and unique.
I started, on a lunchtime run just after I picked up Sophmoricles from the airport, with the Mole Negro. Strangely, this sauce more resembled the preparations of Mole Poblano I’ve had in NYC – a dark sauce with a distinct nutty flavor (the menu claims peanuts, almonds, and walnuts, along with fennel seeds and chile mulato), the sauce and the super-tender chicken contained within were, I’m convinced, as good as it gets.
Sophmoricles opted for the Mole Amarillo, which is advertised as “very spicy” but probably only gets to about 6. It’s orange, and flavored with habanero and guajuillo chiles, and “fresh vegetables and spices,” according to the menu. It had a flavor that neither of us could quite identify, though I thought it was vinegary and reminded me of vindaloo. Extremely good stuff, it’s also paired with chicken with the consistency of pulled pork.
On the next visit, with the full group, my friend the Stanford math grad student opted for the Mole Poblano, which is served with turkey. A lighter shade of brown than the Mole Negro, the poblano was a complex and satisfying mélange of chocolate and nuts. I realize that this description doesn’t really explain anything, but, hell, it’s one of those things that’s too complex for me to parse into parts. Apparently this sauce was concocted for visiting Catholic and Spanish officials by locals worried that the other available varieties would be too spicy. Thus the inquisitive spice-phobe shouldn’t sweat ordering it – it certainly doesn’t lack in flavor, though.
Remember to order the corn tortillas to go along with these pots of heaven – the waitresses will frequently forget to ask, and the default offering (admittedly good, but not as functional as a sauce sop) is made of flour.
We had another Mole on our second visit, courtesy of a complimentary sampler plate brought by our overworked waiter (this was seriously the most crowded I’ve ever seen a SLC restaurant, and on Sunday night no less). It proved just as popular a dip for the corn chips as the excellent salsa and the sublime guacamole ($5.00).
The pumpkin seed sauce known as Pipian is on the menu in an unusual red color, courtesy of the pasilla and guajillo chiles, I’m guessing. It also made a very pleasant appearance in the Papadzules ($7.15), a specialty from the Yucatan which takes the concept of the enchilada one step further by adding Mole Verde, chopped boiled egg, and a sauce called “chilitomate,” which I can only assume combines chiles and tomatoes, because Google doesn’t know, and I don’t remember tasting it separately from the Mole Verde.
Speaking of Mole Verde, I didn’t know that it was also supposed to be made with pumpkin seeds – this version more closely resembled the Pipian I had at St. Francisco de Asis. It’s available with chicken or turkey – or, like all of the moles, available in a cup on the side for $4.60 (the regular mole dishes with meat are $12.30).
I don’t remember that we tasted the Mole Coloradito, which features pine nuts(!), or the home-concocted almond mole (Almendras), which features a dried-fruit-stuffed pork loin. Shame on us.
We did, however, try some other things. The Enmoladas (located, appropriately, with the Papadzules in the menu category “Marvels of Mexico”), were folded dumpling-like pockets of beans in Mole Negro – the dumpling skin was, of course, a corn tortilla ($7.15). It was delicious in a simple way, and a good vehicle for vegetarians to get on the mole bus.
The fajitas smelled good, but I skipped them in favor of the Chile Rellenos ($8.70). You might recall my scathing review of the Mexicali attempt – believe you me, I wanted to erase that horrible memory. The first step in the right direction is to use the correct kind of Anaheim chiles. They’re big! Stuff ‘em with jack cheese, fry them in an egg batter that’s got a little flour in it, and top them with a sauce just before serving, so the afore-mentioned batter doesn’t get soggy.
Fortunately, the Iguana did these things correctly, so what I got was a satisfying meal instead of shoe leather. I still wouldn’t order them over the moles ever again, but if you like Rellenos, this is a good place to get them.
I would also be remiss in not recommending the Pozole soup, available at $4.50 a bowl as a special (Sunday – I don’t remember seeing it available on Thursday). Brick red, with tender pork, hominy, and two fried corn tortillas (tostadas), a lettuce/cilantro salad, and lime wedges on the side (all, presumably, to be added to the broth), it was acclaimed as a major triumph by all four diners.
It’s sad, but I’m not sure you can get all of this stuff in New York, and certainly not in the same restaurant. I don’t know why – have we lost the Mexican-loving population to the likes of Chipotle and their 1,000 calorie burritos forever? Or are the likes of St. Francisco harbingers of good things to come? Hope it’s the latter. Regardless, I have a new favorite Mexican restaurant, and I’ll be dragging my family and friends there every time I visit. If you’re going skiing, hiking, or churching in Utah, don’t miss it.