Restaurant review: Iguanas Fresh Mexican Grill

G.A. Benton

When evaluating a restaurant, it's instructive to ask a two-part question: “What is this business trying to be, and how well is it achieving that goal?”

Applying this test to Iguanas Fresh Mexican Grill, the answer to the first part seems to be “the prototype for a chain of fast-casual restaurants with crowd-pleasing food, a salsa bar and speedy service.”

The answer to the second part of the question: “Iguanas is nailing it.”

No wonder this new Lewis Center eatery offering a drive-through window and an ambience a couple grades above standard fast-food operations is usually busy. The big, open place with colorful lizard decorations, brick pillars and a kitschy, beach-style bar is notably orderly, too.

Upon entering, customers are asked to select a table or booth and peruse a menu. A server, possibly wearing a headset, will soon appear and deliver a little metal bucket of warm corn tortilla chips. Food is ordered at the counter, as are adult beverages such as a Dos Equis draft beer ($3.49) or a nondescript, if inexpensive, margarita ($5.99).

Diners should also make a trip — make that numerous trips — to the complimentary salsa bar. The well-maintained dip buffet offers bold salsas that are rich, smoky and spicy (chipotle); bright and tart (tomatillo); zippy and fruity with roasted chilies and tomatoes (caliente). Attention capsaicin fiends: Fiery pickled vegetables are available there, too.

Most items dotting the large, well-organized menu are sold a la carte or as entrees. This basically means a one dollar price differential for OK Mexican rice and refried beans which are, well, definitely worth a dollar. (Unless otherwise specified, a la carte prices will follow.)

The Fish Taco ($3.49), made with uncommonly clean-tasting, crisp-yet-tender tilapia, is a good one. Like the similar but pricier Shrimp Taco ($4.49), it's garnished with scads of red cabbage, pico de gallo and a zesty, mayo-based sauce.

All taco proteins — these include shredded beef, carne asada (flavorful but chewy) and chicken “tinga” (here, nicely seasoned pulled chicken) — can be ordered traditional (flour tortilla, lettuce, grated cheese) or, my preference, Baja-style with warm, soft corn tortillas, onions, cilantro and tangy-creamy guacamole.

Want a chili boost for your filling? Order it fuego for chipotle sauce or diablo for habanero sauce. Befitting this establishment's genre, fillings can occupy heftier packages such as burritos, enchiladas and gloriously messy tortas encased inside respectable toasted telera rolls ($9 to $11).

Machaca is a shredded beef preparation that's popular in Northern Mexico, where flour tortillas are often eaten. The restaurant combines both of those components to create its Machaca Burrito ($8.99). Stuffed with juicy and delicious, brisket-type beef accented with eggs, guacamole, peppers and onions, plus the usual fixings, it's one of the better burritos around.

The meaty Chicken Enchiladas ($9, only available as an entree) are another highlight and another rib-sticking illustration as to why Tex-Mex fare enjoys such wide appeal. Hardly fancy, or authentically Mexican, the rich and salty tubes are swamped in tangy queso dip and racy ranchera sauce and then garnished with sour cream, grated cheese and canned black olives.

A side of on-the-money Mexican street corn (Elote, $4.49) will improve any order. The unblended Chunky Guacamole ($7.99) is impressive in its size and ingredient content, but would benefit from, well, a little blending.

My not-too-sweet Homemade Flan ($4.29) looked a bit beat up. Still, the good-tasting, caramel-sauced, wiggly custard hit most of its targets.

This restaurant hits most of its targets, too. If Iguanas wants to grow into a chain — and it sure looks like it does — this smooth-running place functions as a promising blueprint for that future expansion.

Iguana's Fresh Mexican Grill

76 Powell Rd., Lewis Center