Review: Iguana Grill Sets New Bar For Mexican Restaurants

2085 Colonial Drive, Suite 101
(In the Plaza Fiesta off Lorna Rd. in Hoover)
987-8240


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By Deborah Lockridge

iguanamural-250.jpgWe broke our usual rule of waiting until a restaurant has been open at least a month before reviewing it, and we're glad we did. Iguana Grill had only been open a week or two, but it beckoned from its hilltop location off Lorna, with its warm colors, second-floor wrought iron balcony and tantalizing interior lights.

Iguana Grill anchors one end of a small strip plaza, developed by a partnership of local Hispanic businessmen, targeted at the local Hispanic community. At the other end is a El Mercado Mexican grocery store, with fresh cuts of meats we couldn't identify, fresh pastries and produce, and a wide selection of other Mexican specialties. In between are a laundromat and Western wear store. Not your typical strip mall, Plaza Fiesta glows with rich, warm colors, attractive streetlight-type lighting and iron art accents.

Iguana Grill's décor is impressive – not the usual sombreros, Mexican blankets and Aztec calendars we've come to associate with Mexican restaurants. According to published reports, it was the work of one of the Mexico's most acclaimed interior designers, Martha Figueroa. Her firm, Adobe Designs, has created interior designs for 30 restaurants and hotels - mostly in Mexico, but also across Central and South America, as well as China, Japan and Spain.

Iguana features warm, burnt-orange walls accented with a variety of metal art, including an impressive wall sculpture of wild horses over the bar. The back wall is covered with a brightly colored 16-foot-by-32-foot hand-painted mural. But what's truly amazing are the lights. There are more than 250 decorative light fixtures from Mexico. When you walk in, there's a massive red chandelier installation in the foyer. Cut-metal multi-pointed star lights hang from giant wicker wheels on the ceiling. Giant basket-type globes encase lights on the walls. One table surrounds a metal tree, hung with wicker lanterns. On the corner of each booth is a cut-metal lamp, as well. Our 4-year-old was enchanted, and to be honest, so were we.

iguana2-250.jpgThe restaurant offers the usual Tex-Mex lineup of burritos, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, and combinations, but there are also some more unusual entrees. Some of the more intriguing: the Molcajete Pesado, a dish for two with sirloin steak, chorizo and pork chops with green onions, grilled cactus and jalapenos toreados, all served on a molcajete, a black stone dish. (We're definitely going back to try that one.) Pozole, a Mexican hominy soup, or Sopa de Mariscos, a seafood broth with crab, mussels, fish, oysters, shrimp and octopus. Carnitas, which are pork tips served with rice, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo and tortillas. There are several different dishes featuring sirloin steak, as well as a 12-ounce ribeye grilled over mesquite. On Saturdays and Sundays, you can get chicken mole. As an alternative to the typical taco salad, there's the grilled shrimp salad, with mesquite-grilled shrimp topped with sauce and served over a bed of lettuce with  marinated vegetables, tomatoes, avocado and parmesan cheese.

While we were trying to decide, we started out with a small order of cheese dip ($2.99). This was the fairly typical white cheese with a bit of jalapenos you find in most Mexican restaurants in the area. Good, but nothing special. We enjoyed both the salsas that came to the table with the ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips. One was a very fresh-tasting version, with chunky tomatoes and bits of cilantro. The other had a smoky, more complex flavor. Both were a nice medium level of heat. A couple bottles of Mexican beer, a Dos Equis and a Pacifica, washed it down well, with lemonade brought in a to-go cup with a lid and straw for our little one.

We still couldn't make up our minds, so next we ordered two tamales from the A La Carte section of the menu ($2.50 each). We decided it would be worth coming back just for these tamales. Served atop the corn husk they had been cooked in and topped with a brown enchilada-type sauce, they were filled with a generous portion of savory, slightly spicy shredded pork. They were neither greasy nor too dry – perhaps the best we've ever had.

After the tamales, we finally ordered entrees. From  under the Seafood section, one of us chose Shrimp Tostadas de Ceviche ($10). Ceviches was described as "shrimp or fish cooked in lime juice and prepared with diced jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and avocado." For Tostadas de Ceviche, they were simply served on top of two tostadas, which are just a flat crispy corn tortilla – sort of like a hard taco shell, only flat. While traditionally ceviche is "cooked" by marinating in citrus juices, these tasted as though they actually had been cooked with heat, just a hair on the tough side. They were small shrimp, cut in pieces, in a sauce that was slightly sweet, slightly spicy, seasoned with oregano. Each tostado was topped with a couple of slices of avocado (we had to cut a bad spot out of one slice). The spiciness was what we call "cumulative" – the first bite may only taste a little spicy, but by the time you're finished, your mouth is definitely feeling the heat.

Our other entrée was a Chile Relleno. You have your choice of beef or cheese filling, and we chose beef. This was tasty, not greasy or smothered with cheese as some are. It was served with Mexican rice, refried beans and a pico de gallo salad for $7.99. The beans were a real treat, very homemade and fresh tasting.

For our 4-year-old, while there is a children's menu offering $3.50 versions tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas or chicken fingers and fries, we instead chose a chicken flauta ($3.00) from the A La Carte selection and a side order of refried beans ($1.50). The flauta was good, with nicely seasoned and tender chicken meat inside, wrapped in a tortilla fried so it was crispy but not shattering on the outside and a little chewy on the inner layers.

We didn't have room for dessert, but you can get a sopapilla, flan, fried ice cream, pastel tres leches (moist cake made with three different kinds of milk), or churros with cinnamon and whipped cream.

There are a number of lunch specials ranging in price from $5.50 for some basic combination plates to $9.99 for a luncheon steak or fajitas. There's an attractive bar area, and the restaurant serves some basic wines, a wide selection of Mexican beers plus the usual mass-market domestics, regular or Texas margaritas, and nine kinds of tequila.

In short, the food was delicious, the atmosphere both comfortable and beautiful, and the service very attentive. Plaza Fiesta might have been designed with the Hoover area's Hispanics in mind, but Iguana Grill is a restaurant the whole community can enjoy.

Published January 2007