Cafe Reviews

The Last Straw

It's been the kind of week I'd rather just forget. Nothing's been going as smoothly as it should. Now I'm camped out at Iguana Mack's, a new Chandler food hall that describes itself as a "hip dining experience" celebrating the "early Arizona desert oasis: the Roadhouse." Groovy concept, I'm thinking -- casual charm, cheap eats.

Eats so cheap, in fact, that I marvel at the bargains before me. How in the world can this place send out such massive lunches for only $4.95 -- like two bulging fish tacos with rice and beans, a half-pound burger with a mountain of fries, or a huge, open-faced pot roast sandwich with mashed potatoes and tomato-garlic green beans, all including coffee, tea or pop?

Yet I'm despondent. The food is lousy. Chalk up another disappointment in what's been a crazy seven days. Money-saving meals or no, the only thing that's going to make this dreary feeding time survivable is to load up on Iguana Mack's signature margarita -- the Blue Iguana, a potent blend of Cuervo Gold, Cointreau and Blue Curacao.

Because darn this week. It started out good. I was terribly excited, for one small example, to have found an incredible deal on hay (this is the West's most Western town). The cost has been soaring through the roof from the Arizona drought, and it doesn't help that my historic neighborhood feed shop just burned down (the hay caught fire and torched the building). Groovy luck, I thought, I found first-rate roughage, and cheap. So I ordered 10 bales delivered.

Yet somehow the message went through as 142 bales. One hundred and forty-two 100-pound wads of grass! The delivery guys dropped it and ran. Simple communication problem, they stuttered. And they won't take it back because it requires special trucks, and they're busy.

The mishap would be livable, but the stack is almost five feet taller than my house. Divided among two already-plump horses and two tiny goats as well-padded as Roseanne, I'm stocked in alfalfa for the next two years, plus I can't get into my driveway or see out my side window. And here's what's coming: I figure the hay will rot within six months, go up in flames like my feed store, then smoke furiously like the mulch fire that raged out of control in the East Valley for most of last week. I'll be arrested and charged with huge environmental crimes. My animals will starve while I'm in prison, and I'll emerge penniless and homeless.

Such a bargain. It's been that kind of week.

So I figured retro roadhouse grub would be just the ticket to ease my mind and my wallet, the place described by Iguana Mack management as "unplugged, unprogrammed and a little uncivilized."

What this means is a redneck-kitsch setting, with an all-over-the-map menu of American, Mexican, Cajun and soul. The place opened at the beginning of September, and I eagerly planned out my relaxing, let-loose meal based on the menu I picked up then.

This is real comfy grub, I tell my buddy, dragging him away from his fascinated ogling of my Eiffel alfalfa edifice. It'll be just what he likes: an all-out gorging on staples like spicy fried chicken with chorizo gravy, steaming bowls of chili Colorado and beans with cheesy chile corn bread, and iron skillet tamale pie with gobs of sour cream. We can come grubby for this decor -- it's grunge-cute, with lots of brightly colored walls, crazy knickknacks, and chandeliers fashioned from empty soda and liquor bottles. Another plus: The owner's got a good track record, being Michael Lopercio, who owned the property's former incarnation as the popular Chops steak house and was a partner in 1980s hot spot Lunt Avenue Marble Club. He honors his past here with several nostalgic dishes -- Marble Club zucchini, Chops' spinach fundito and chips, and Chops' au gratin potatoes. So he says.

Except now we're pushing a complimentary ramekin of salsa and a tin pie plate of cold, from-a-bag tortilla chips back and forth, neither of us wanting to take ownership of a watery chop of tomato, onion and exhausted chiles. I'd have bet that the salsa came from a plastic jug; if it's homemade like our server insists, the kitchen could save a lot of time by resorting to a Costco brand.

And then I'm told that my sought-after items have been taken off the menu. What? An Arizona roadhouse with no chili? No chicken-fried anything? This isn't fun. The last time I had such a sinking feeling, in fact, was just a few hours ago, when I went out to feed my pets and crashed face-first into the tower of hay so high it blocks the sun.

The only old-fashioned thing at Iguana Mack's is Lunt Avenue Marble Club's famous -- and at the time highly novel -- appetizer of deep-fried zucchini. How's this for a blast from the past, during those wildcat culinary years two decades ago, when people lined up nose-to-neck to get a plate of steaming-hot, greasy-as-all-get-out nubbins of vegetable cloaked in batter and sunk in blistering oil. It was so chic, I remember fondly -- a platter of fried zuke 'n' 'shrooms, rounds of Pac-Man, a pitcher of margaritas (I was just a teenager, true, but carding was so much looser then).

We get the zucchini. But what the hey? This lauded appetizer is boring, just skinny disks of tasteless squash enrobed in damp, tasteless batter, with none of the hot steamy crunch of breading and molten gush of juicy vegetable liquid that its predecessor brought. The oil temperature needs to be turned way up for a crisp coat, and the zuke cut a bit thicker to keep the fruit moist.

I've also ordered arepas, a Cuban dish, and I detest it. Five dry, grilled corn cakes almost make my eyes water with their harsh, vinegary assault, perhaps from their chorizo infusion, and so strong that the metal flavor can't be hidden by scoops of sour cream and nice-on-its-own shredded smoked pork. Catfish has flat out gone bad, the fillet surprisingly juicy but unmistakable with its dusty, moldy stench that settles in my nostrils after the first forkful. A chile-cheese corn muffin is Sahara, even slathered in butter. The only thing I finish -- default of despair -- is a side of smooth mashed potatoes drizzled in brown gravy studded with mushrooms.

It's sad that an entire petting zoo had to be sacrificed to comprise "The Whole Barnyard," a careless platter of two low-flavored barbecued chicken thighs, a fistful of tough burned barbecue spareribs, and just-okay pulled barbecue beef. The promised sides of coleslaw and muffin are no-shows; the plate is taken up with a watered-out roasted corncob. The only acceptable dish I find is that open-face pot roast sandwich, chuck steak smoke-roasted for six hours and ladled with mushroom-studded brown gravy over store-bought white bread.

Two other dishes are atrocious, and then I wave my white flag over the 40-plus item menu. I'd rather eat moldy hay than the Iguana's flabby enchiladas stuffed with minced smoked chicken and spinach in a tomatillo-cream cheese goop. Sides are essentially herb pilaf and pinto beans in bell pepper broth. Yawn. And the menu writer who wrote "kick-ass" next to the description of the so-called Cajun cream sauce on my jambalaya linguini should have 100-pound bales dropped on his head. There's nothing remotely exciting about this oily separation pooled over rubbery sautéed chicken, tiny shrimp and chorizo crumbles spiked with huge chunks of green pepper and onion.

What a week.

On the plus side, I was able to give a Gilbert friend simple directions to my house the other day. Just go outside, look north and head toward the mountain of green straw looming in the flight path of the Scottsdale Airpark. And if the stack does go up in flames, the inferno might convince my eternal termites to find another residence to eat, which would be good. Sigh.

In the meantime, know anybody who needs some hay? Delivery is free.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet