To those Utahns who crave authentic, original and excellent Mexican food, Red Iguana is something of an icon. Perhaps its eclectic, quirky décor and atmosphere also have something to do with its ongoing popularity.
Co-owner Bill Coker certainly thinks so.
“It always feels like a wedding reception in the dining room,” he said. “People from all walks of life and all persuasions brought together by a wedding invitation or in our case, wonderful food: Your Aunt Martha weaving through the tables talking to herself; Cousin Walter, the wild accountant from Minnesota sitting with the dingy Goth twins from the bride’s high school days, next to the deacon of the church who’s chatting with a trucker about his rig parked by the Wonder Bread building next door.”
“I think everyone feels they have permission to just be who they are, it’s kind of a culture-category-free zone,” he continued.
This “culture-category-free zone” began as a single restaurant in 1985 operated by Ramon and Maria Cardenas, two members of Salt Lake Valley’s Cardenas family, which has operated a number of high quality Mexican restaurants in Utah since 1965. The couple opened their restaurant 25 years ago out of, as Red Iguana’s Web site puts it, “shared a passion for Mexican cuisine, and created recipes and dishes proudly served as delicious expressions of their cultural background.”
Although Maria Cardenas died in 2002, the passion she had for food and for her restaurant is continued today through the work of her daughter, Lucy Cardenas, who owns the restaurant along with her husband, Coker.
“The Red Iguana is such a jewel, who could let it go?” asked the younger Cardenas.
Although Cardenas and Coker are both heterosexual, one of Coker’s sisters is lesbian and the couple’s daughter married her female partner in California in 2008. Naturally, the two are very supportive of Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, many of whom can be found in the lines that stretch daily around both Red Iguana’s first location on 736 W. North Temple and its new store at 866 W. South Temple (a third restaurant is scheduled to be opened later this year in the City Creek Center’s food court).
“I think the LGBT community likes the independent spirit of Red Iguana, its eclectic, non-conformist and admittedly defiant resistance to what some would consider “normal” or “nice,” said Coker, who worked in the entertainment industry for 40 years alongside “whole crews of delightfully talented and very out LGBTs.”
“But bottom line, we don’t treat anyone any different that walks through our door at The Red Iguana,” he continued. “You are all guests in our home, sorta like at our daughters wedding reception . . . sit down, eat, enjoy. Thank you for including us in your life.”
Cardenas agreed. “Being a good human being is all that matters to me. We take care of our customers because they take care of us.”
Red Iguana’s customers take care of the restaurant not only because of its friendly atmosphere and accepting staff, but also because of what Coker and Cardenas describe as its “killer Mexican food.” The “killer” menu includes the Cardenas family’s takes on such staples as nachos, chile con queso (chili with cheese), quesadillas and enchiladas — and, of course, the restaurant’s famous mole, which is a thick sauce made of ingredients as varied as chilies, nuts, raisins and other fruits and vegetables. The high demand for this food couldn’t even be bested by the frosty economy; Cardenas and Coker both report that their second location, Red Iguana 2, is doing well.
“We see friends, associates, neighborhood, local workers, government officials, large families,” said Coker. “Opening not only one but two new restaurants in this economy has kept us up more than a few nights. Even with the success that Red Iguana has had over the years, it’s still a sobering feeling to realize your instincts could be wrong, our great idea, not so great. But in several respects, this is the perfect time to open a new business if you can get the financing, because there are people and services out there that you can get at a bargain because everyone is hungry (no pun intended) to get some work, and you will be positioned with a great product as the upswing begins.”
To view Red Iguana’s menu or to learn more about the restaurant visit rediguana.com.