31 May 2013

Las Iguanas

Food ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪✪✪ 
Service ✪✪✪✪✪ 

Mon-Thu 12 – 11pm 
Fri-Sat 12 - 11:30pm 
Sun 12 - 10:30pm 

62-74 Grey Street, 
Newcastle Upon Tyne
NE1 6AF 0191 232 9729 

[NOTE: Original review 2013.  Re-visited 2017 and downgraded to ✪✪]

When Eren Ali bought his landlady’s failing Italian restaurant in Bristol he wanted a new concept in eateries. He chose Latin American, but because Mexican food, though simple and comforting, wasn’t terribly cool, he added a touch of Brazil. 

That was back in 1991. Now Las Iguanas is one of the UK’s most successful restaurant chains, and Latin American food has become very cool indeed. Eren Ali was way ahead of his time, and his concept has made him millions.

I don’t normally review chains, largely because I don’t particularly like eating in them. I like to know that my sauces are made daily on the premises, not in some warehouse halfway down the M1. It reassures me to know that the chefs are properly trained, not just underpaid griddle pushers. 

Erin Ali evidently agrees with this philosophy. Las Iguanas has grown through two recessions from that one site in Bristol to around 30 thriving restaurants, with big ambitions for further expansion, by investing in great staff and fresh, authentic ingredients. 

His core target market is what the catering industry calls pre-family 25-35 year olds. On Sunday night, the place was full of them. 

Mrs Diner and I don’t exactly fit into that category, nor do the friends who joined us, but we were made to feel incredibly welcome. It has a lively, noisy fun ambience and by 7pm the joint was already heaving. Apparently it heaves every night, so booking is essential, even for an early evening meal. 

Half the place is a bar, which was packed too. Happy hour, with 2 for 1 cocktails, lasts from 12 noon till 7.30pm and all day from Sunday to Wednesday. By 7pm on Sunday, people were very happy indeed. Four margaritas on the rocks later, we instantly became cheerful too, transported from Grey Street to somewhere between Mexico and Peru. 

The menu is large, ranging from traditional TexMex fajita/chimichanga/burrito standards to more interesting dishes like Brazilian xinxim (lime chicken in a crayfish and peanut sauce), and Peruvian albondigas (meatballs).

Chicken enchilada with tomatillo sauce

If I’d feared the dishes enter the kitchen in little sealed packets, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The chefs prepare the sauces freshly every day, using proper Mexican ingredients like tomatillos, guajillo chillis, and smoked jalapeños. 

You get the impression that the staff have as much fun as the customers. There’s a great atmosphere. 

We started by sharing a taco tray, with shredded beef, slow-braised in smoky chilli, lemon garlic prawns, and tinga, which is chicken with chipotle (smoked jalapeños). It came with little tortillas, melted cheese, pink onions and a lot of flavour. 

Smoked chorizo
Then we shared several starters: tasty mushroom and cheese quesadilla, some exquisite duck and onion taquito rolls, served with a cranberry salsa (which needed a little more spice), and a little bowl of exceptionally good smoky chorizo stew. 

I nearly ordered a second bowl of this just for myself, but we needed to keep space for a full range of main courses, including chicken fajitas, a fried chimichanga parcel of tinga, and a spicy chicken enchilada, which came with a very good tomatillo sauce – tomatillo are little tomato-like fruits which have a fabulous acidic kick to them. 

My friend ambitiously ordered something called feijoada de Puerco, the national dish of Brazil. This rich beef, smoked chorizo and pork stew, had a sauce of great depth. It was delicious. 

Berry Mexican Mess
Meanwhile he and I did a quick South American brewery tour – from Brazilian Brahma to Peruvian Cusqueña. 

I’m ashamed to say that after this feast we even had dessert: a creamy caramel cake drizzled with dulce de leche that was almost too sweet to eat, and a pileup of an Eton mess, called Berry Mexican Mess. 

It had hibiscus syrup, mascarpone, yoghurt and so many calories I vowed not to eat again for a week.

Except that, of course, I have to eat again - for next week's review.
Las Iguanas - Newcastle on Urbanspoon

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