Iguana Grill | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 1120 East Carson St., South Side. 412-390-0490
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thu.-Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat. noon-11 p.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-8; entrees $6-10
Fare: Mexican-American
Atmosphere: Understated contemporary
Liquor: Full bar

"Foreign food" is a broad term, encompassing not only myriad cuisines but also more than one approach to preparing them. At the most authentic end of the spectrum are those ethnic establishments run by recent immigrants to serve their compatriots a taste of home -- and the rest of us a tantalizing taste of the exotic. Others feature a modified menu tailored to local palates and readily available ingredients. And then there are those cuisines -- Chinese and Mexican spring to mind -- that have been made so safe for the food courts that many an enterprising restaurateur who has never set fork in the country in question has devised his or her own homage, with varyingly sincere results.

We don't dismiss any of these approaches out of hand, having had fine meals at some of the most loosely interpreted foreign restaurants as well as some of the most authentic. The key, we've found, is knowing which end of the spectrum you're dining on before the food arrives, so that your expectations are in sync with your meal.

At South Side's Iguana Grill, our first clue was the chronic misspelling of "chili" throughout the menu. Here, Mexican is more of a theme than an actual ethnicity. And so in place of first-hand familiarity with south-of-the-border cooking, we found mostly well-considered interpretations of Mexican standards so assimilated they have practically become American: burritos, quesadillas, fajitas and enchiladas. In addition, Iguana Grill serves up some outstanding versions of truly American fare, such as potato chips and wings.

Served with an excellent creamy, chunky bleu cheese dressing, the homemade potato chips were brown, light and crisp, and dusted with just enough seasoning to offset the flavor of frying, nut not so much as to inflict a mouthful of spice mix. Homemade tortilla chips, alas, were nothing special, though the salsa served with them contained sautéed onions, resulting in an appealing, subtle sweetness.

Iguana Grill's wings met Jason's exacting standards: crisp skin, tender meat and sauce enough to cling to, not drown, the wings themselves. The tangy, spicy "Mexican Buffalo" sauce was thinner than a traditional Buffalo sauce, with a vinegar base that kept the flavor lively.

An enchilada aficionado, Angelique was not so pleased with Iguana Grill's interpretation of this Mexican classic. In place of savory shredded chicken, she got seasoningless morsels; in place of tender corn tortillas, tough ones parched by too long in the oven. A scant hand with the cheese left the entire concoction dry, despite being drizzled with an ancho pepper sauce that tasted to Angelique more like marinara.

In contrast, Jason's spicy pulled-pork burrito packed a satisfying wallop. At first the heat made the tender pork a bit hard to judge, but once Jason's taste buds settled down, they were pleased with the slow-cooked meat, studded with red and green peppers, as well as the black beans and Mexican rice in the wrap. As with the enchilada, the cheese wasn't exactly oozing from the package, but the pork's tangy sauce -- a cousin of the wing sauce -- kept things sufficiently moist. The biggest flaw was the truly meager portions of sour cream and guacamole, wrapped in the burrito where they heated up and lost their distinctive cooling balm.

Since most bars on the South Side dare not depart from Pittsburgh classics and clichés, we applaud the owners of Iguana Grill for boldly spicing things up -- literally and figuratively -- with an almost completely Mexican-derived menu. The results won't deceive anyone that they've wandered into a cantina, but that's OK -- there's a niche for Mexican prepared with an American accent, and that's good enough to make you want a cerveza on your next East Carson pub crawl.

Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2 stars

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