I'm not exactly sure what led me to Iguana Mia in the first place. Eternal optimism that I will eventually find good, casual Mexican fare in South Florida? Hardly. Enchantment with the name, which translates to the ethnically unappetizing "My Iguana"? Um, no. A desire to be proved wrong about every tenet of restaurateuring that I hold true? Well, we might be on to something there.
This Mexican restaurant, the fourth in a chain that was established in 1990 -- the Plantation location opened about nine months ago -- isn't exactly trying to pull one over on the unsuspecting gringo. All you have to do is read -- and then read between the lines of -- "The Legend of Juan & His Iguana," which is related on the first page of the menu. Apparently, Juan, "a creative cook from the region of Sonora," became bored with his regional cuisine and went on a national gastronomic sojourn in search of his own personal culinary mecca. At one point, he became lost in a southern Mexican jungle and was rescued by a friendly iguana whom local villagers had been feeding in preparation for their own dinner. Credulity becomes even more strained when the reader is asked to believe that not only did Juan and the reptile become inseparable traveling companions but that they send recipes from all over Mexico to the Iguana Mia eateries in Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Bonita, and Plantation, where the chef is related to Juan.
Of course, you're not supposed to take any of this seriously, but toward the end lies such a nugget of truth, it could be the moral of the story: "We have adjusted some [recipes] for the Norte Americano palate."
In other words, this is not the real Cancún. Nor is it the real Sonora, Ensenada, Veracruz, Baja, Michoácan, or any other Mexican region, city, or village you care to name. What it is, generally, is the dumbed-down, gringo-interpreted version of the traditional recipes from these places, except for one thing: Just as it can in Mexico, the fare here can make you feel just a tad ill.
As can the décor, done in a style most aptly described as "disco pueblo." Faux-adobe walls are painted in a kaleidoscope of fluorescent colors that surely never graced any Aztec construction, and the massively oversize white banquettes are about as comfortable to sit on as a statue's lap. If the Flintstones had had a cavernous, 250-seat Mexican restaurant, Iguana Mia would have been it. And the food, in some cases, tastes every bit as prehistoric.
Indeed, I've never seen so many congealed dishes in my dining life. From rubbery "Juan's beans" -- they're actually smashed pintos as opposed to refried -- to pork nachos, semi-solidified foodstuffs seemed the order of the day. Iguana Mia's philosophy to serve lean meats, healthy vegetarian options, and less bad cholesterol is commendable, aside from the undeniable fact that higher-fat cheeses melt more fluidly and coagulate less rapidly, while refried beans get a smoother texture with a little lubrication. (Black beans, another side-dish option, counter any supposed healthy benefits via the amount of salt with which they've been infused.) Besides, when you're going to serve all-you-can-eat daily-made corn tortilla chips with homemade salsa and bring both of the two-for-one margaritas you order at the same time, why pretend that we're not in the realm of indulgence?
Oddly enough, chile con queso was one dish that didn't seem to have enough of a sinewy character. The thin, runny appetizer took as much hold on chips as salad dressing does on watery lettuce, and the whole cheez-whizzy mess, which kept its milk-like consistency even though it was served cold, was overwhelmingly flavored with bacon. Guacamole, too mildly seasoned with bits of tomatoes, lime, and onions, was another disappointingly textured starter. The Haas avocados had been minced rather than mashed, resulting in balls of green glop as smooth as scoops of pistachio ice cream.
Indeed, overdoing rather than under-doing it seemed to mar the rest of the meal. Yellowfin tuna fajitas were both too salty and too well-done, continuing to crisp over burned bits of onion and charred zucchini long after the skillet was brought to the table. Soggy sides of vegetables included corn on the cob that had apparently been soaking in water long enough to swell like hominy.
Steak ranchero, slices of chile-rubbed beef baked with red enchilada sauce under a veritable mattress of jack cheese and pillows of sour cream, was tenderized by the spices alone, though the stewing process would have accomplished a certain amount of obligatory softening.
In terms of overdoing it, however, two dishes proved to be value-driven gravy trains. The beef sampler was more like a beef fiesta, with a taco, tamale, chimichanga, enchilada, and flautas, all stuffed with hearty amounts of shredded beef. Individually, items such as the taco, which boasted a shell so stale even a hermit crab wouldn't go near it, had flaws. But taken as a whole, this plate could satisfy the hungriest diner in the house. Same goes for the pozole, a soup that ranks among my favorite concoctions. Iguana Mia's version was a large bowl of lime-and-chile-tinged, tomato-reduced broth, stocked with white hominy, hunks of pork, half-moons of avocado, and an assortment of garnishes ranging from radishes to shredded lettuce. This, along with the terrifically fresh chips and salsa and a cold Tecate, could do the trick for any diner, be he gringo or hail he from Mexico.
As far as service goes, the casual shouting matches in the echoing dining room go pleasantly enough. But questions like "Do you have a wine list?" and "Can I get that without cheese?" will garner you identical answers and similar expressions: No, and why bother? The only issue the waitresses seemed truly concerned about was the painted floor, which had been chipping. While we were paying our check, one of the servers started taking pictures of the flaking areas in order, she told us, to prove to the management that it was the paint job and not a lack of mopping on behalf of the staff. If the kitchen would start paying that kind of attention to whether the coating for the fried ice cream was fresh or stale, Iguana Mia might have a shot at climbing closer to the top of the chain-restaurant food chain. As it is, I'd rather sample Juan's iguana for my next dinner.