CANTON — It has been just about a year since the Spicy Iguana opened. We had lunch there last April, but decided it was time to go back for a full-fledged dinner review.
Despite its location in the dingy Rite Aid plaza behind McDonald's, the Spicy Iguana is a bright and cheerful little place. The walls are brightly but not gaudily colored, adorned with Latino folk art. Plain wooden tables befit south-of-the-border authenticity.
As the name would imply, Spicy Iguana serves Latino and Mexican cuisine. Chef-owner Fernando Pantoja hails from Ecuador, and he has created a restaurant that offers a bit more than run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex cuisine, prepared in a more authentic Central/South American way than many other places.
He has tweaked his menu over the last 12 month, adding things like tostones (deep-fried plantains) and chicharrones (deep-fried pork belly) to his "Spicy Iguana Signatures" and "Specialties Authentico Sabor Latino" offerings.
New, too, is the restaurant's full liquor license. They're now serving beer and wine and, of course, margaritas.
A "killer margarita" was a good place to start. Our knowledgeable waitress told us the distinguishing ingredient making a margarita a killer margarita was "more booze." In particular, the addition of Grand Marnier. If you want to have a real party at your table, margaritas are available by the pitcher.
An imported Negra Modelo hit the spot, and a red wine on special the night we were there for $2 a glass was certainly drinkable.
Food-wise, we began with nachos Iguanas ($5), a plateful of chips sprinkled with a grated, mild Mexican cheese that resembled farmer cheese with the taste reminiscent of feta, and a runny homemade bean sauce.
While we appreciated the cheese and the bean sauce, too bad they were served over too-salty boughten multicolored chips. Took away from the impact of the cheese and sauce.
Some people judge a Mexican restaurant by the guacamole; others by the pico de gallo. The Iguana's guacamole ($7.95) was particularly interesting, nicely seasoned mashed avocado mixed with tasty pico de gallo. It was really delicious, smooth and creamy. Too bad we had to spoon it over those too-salty chips.
By the way, complimentary pico and chips got our evening under way and gave us a chance to sample the pico de gallo by itself — reasonably tasty diced tomatoes for this time of the year, and enough heat to give it a lingering afterburn.
Then there's the chicharrones ($5). I guess it tasted like you would expect a hunk of deep-fried pork belly fat to taste — a little like bacon only uncured and unsmoked and a little uncompelling. But at least now we can say we experienced chicharrones. It was thoughtfully cut into small chunks for ease of consumption.
The dish came with tostones, deep-fried plantains. They weren't greasy at all, but they were rather bland and not very crisp. However, they made for great little shovels for enjoying the guacamole.
Chimichanga is basically a deep-fried burrito. We got a chicken chimichanga ($13.95) filled with refried beans, cheese, tomato and onion. The Iguana's version is a little different than others we've had: two smaller ones (yielding more fried surface to filling ratio), nicely presented cut in half. The filling was quite good. A very large plateful of food.
Chipotle pork fajita ($13.95), again, was a little different than what we're accustomed to. The onions and peppers were cooked to limp, rather than a crunch, and although it arrived on a sizzle platter it didn't come out of the kitchen sizzling. Perhaps that's a Latino vs. Mexican difference.
In any case, it was very good. The sauce was a little bit sweet, very flavorful, and there was plenty of pork to fill the four tortillas that came with it.
There were logistical problems, however. There was no plate room to lay out the tortilla, fill it up, and roll it up nice and neat, ends tucked in. So my guest had to put it all together in her hand, the end result being hands and wrists dripping with fajita juice. Might not be a problem for everyone, but it did lessen her enjoyment of an otherwise yummy fajita.
A steak burrito ($7.95) was mildly seasoned and had good proportions of meat, beans, onions, cheese and cilantro. The steak was a little chewy and the presentation could have been better. It was totally undressed and ungarnished, just a pale stuffed tortilla plopped on the plate by itself.
Tacos ($8.95) were made with authentic soft white corn tortillas, a real treat. It makes you realize why corn tortillas are the standard in much of Latin America. We chose the campechano (combination chicken, steak and chorizo) filling and found the paprika flavor in the sausage a bit overpowering.
Desserts are available but we didn't partake. Banana cheesecake burrito was particularly intriguing.
Dinner for four came to $72.46 before tip and without beverages.
Our server pronounced the dishes beautifully, but was somewhat overly attentive. She came to the table way too often to ask how everything was and if we needed anything else. But maybe that's because we were the only table in the place occupied at 7:30 on a Thursday night.
A shame, because Fernando has a good thing going here. He's poured his heart and soul into the place, but on this particular night, at least, he could have used a little more support from the dining public.
The Spicy Iguana is open for lunch and dinner, serving until 10 p.m. weekdays and until 2 a.m. weekends with a special late night menu from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. There's also live music every weekend.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
21 Miner St. (Rite Aid plaza)
A bright and cheerful little place serving freshly made Latino and Mexican dishes
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday
11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Be sure to try the guacamole, a mixture of mashed avocado and pico de gallo.
The chimichanga was particularly noteworthy — an overflowing plateful of food