Comfort Food Favorite: Red Iguana

Comfort, it turns out, is not relative, at least with food. No matter the cuisine or the culture that any given dish springs from, it will contain one neurological common denominator, buried in the primal place in our brains: Nostalgia

In search of Salt Lake’s best comfort food, we asked six restaurateurs and chefs what comfort food means to them. In our final edition, we spoke to the minds behind Red Iguana about their nuanced comfort meals that stem from family legacy.

The People: Lucy Cardenas and Bill Coker

The Restaurant: Red Iguana and Red Iguana 2

Red Iguana Salt Lake City
Lucy Cardenas and Bill Coker. Photo by Adam Finkle

Lucy Cardenas grew up in her family’s restaurants, eating some of the same dishes she still serves today at Red Iguana and Red Iguana 2. “Comfort food always reminds me of something in your childhood. My father’s chile verde was the best,” she says. “My family has been serving my father’s chile verde since 1965 along with my mother’s rice.” Still, her take on the potential of comfort food is nuanced, “Comfort food isn’t any one thing. I think it’s very individual. Some people grow up having beans all of the time, and now they never want to eat beans. I could eat a plate of beans every day.” If you’ve had their beans, you probably would too.

When it came to putting together the perfect comfort meal, Cardenas and her partner Bill Coker were hard-pressed not to name their entire menu. “We have as many as nine moles,” says Coker. Mole is a thick, spicy sauce that can stand on its own or top enchiladas and other dishes, typically made from fruits, nuts and chili peppers. “We also make pozole a few times a week.” Pozole is a warm bowl of fragrant goodness—a stew made from pork, hominy and chili peppers. Coker also finds comfort in their hongos al ajillo, “It’s mushrooms sauteed in garlic and butter and a good-looking side dish.” And for dessert? “Sopapillas…or our flan,” he says.

Cardenas’ comfort food focus is more dialed in. “Huevos,” she says. “Anything with an egg.” Her description of their Sunrise Burrito is enough to put most people in a pleasant food coma: pork chile verde burritos that are also smothered in chile verde and melted jack cheese and topped with two eggs. Of course, it comes back to that chile verde, the recipe perfected by her father. “The chile verde is one of our most popular dishes. We have chef friends who have tried to emulate it and haven’t been successful.”

The chile verde, a family legacy,  has been on the menu since Cardenas’ parents Ramon and Maria opened their first restaurant in the Salt Lake Valley, Casa Grande, and the tradition continued when Red Iguana opened in 1985 with the motto “killer Mexican food.” Red Iguana 2 is the sequel to Red Iguana, just a few blocks away from its predecessor with the exact same menu. Cardenas and Coker, ignoring conventional wisdom, opened up the second location to help meet the staggering demand for the first, where people line up down the street to get a table. The second location offers diners a just-as-good-if-not-better alternative, when the wait at Red Iguana gets long, to get a comfortable seat rather than queuing up outside. Now, more than ten years later, the gamble seems to have paid off, and the Cardenas’ legacy killer comfort food lives on. “We’re excited to still be going after 37 years,” she says. “We’re just happy to be here.”  

If You Go…

Red Iguana 2

Sunday–Thursday open 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Friday–Saturday open 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

866 W. South Temple, SLC,
(801) 214-6050

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