“ Address: 108-111 East Side Plaza, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth PO1 3SY „
Earlier this year we decided to hit the January sales at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth. You can often pick up a bargain in the Marks & Spencer Outlet store, and I particularly wanted to look at the discounted handbags and wallets in the Radley shop. Sadly we came away empty-handed from our shopping trip (apart from some cut price Xmas cards), as the bargains were rather thin on the ground. However, the lack of purchases meant we had more to spend on lunch, and we did our usual trail around the whole complex to find a menu that appealed to both of us. Whenever we go shopping at Gunwharf we always consult the restaurant discount section of www.moneysavingexpert.co.uk, and download any vouchers that offer a good deal. With it being so early in January the deals seemed somewhat sparser than usual, and we could only find deals at Strada and Las Iguanas - both offering Two Mains for the price of One.
For those of your familiar with Gunwharf Quays, Las Iguanas is situated next door to Brasserie Blanc and just across from Jamie's Italian. If you spot "The Lipstick" (which is the local name for 1 Gunwharf Quays, a tall 26 storey tower block) then Las Iguanas is within spitting distance. The tower has been nicknamed "The Lipstick" as it allegedly looks a bit like a big lipstick. Personally I think it looks very like a big something else...but that wouldn't be a polite way to describe a local landmark.
~~~ THE VENUE ~~~
Las Iguanas is a small UK chain of Latin American restaurants - there are only 25 Las Iguanas outlets throughout the UK. The chain was started in Bristol in 1991 and has retained its independence by growing slowly unit by unit rather than selling out and flooding our high streets with their brand.
Each Las Iguanas outlet is decorated in bright, vibrant colours as their aim to make you feel like you've been transported to Latin America. The Portsmouth outlet certainly did make us feel we'd been teleported to a Latino country....but via a time-machine, as the décor screamed 1970's to us! The room is done out in mostly browns and oranges with some alarming avocado wall tiles to finish off the colour scheme. Throw in the large wall mural of Rio de Janeiro to the back wall of the restaurant, and the look is complete. You could even mispronounce mural as "murial" à la Hilda Ogden and your 70's night out would almost be complete :o) I must also make mention of the background "music" at Las Iguanas as it's as retro as the décor - a dreadful selection of Spanish crooners and weird Latin American jazz type sounds. I half expected some Tony Romero type, you know - all teeth and tight black trousers - to sashay up to our table shaking his maracas at us. However please don't let the retro décor and the music put you off, as this definitely a restaurant worth visiting. Afterall the décor may be considered quirky and unique to those of us that don't actually remember the 70's! That said, I can't imagine that anyone would much appreciate the music :o)
Las Iguanas at Gunwharf Quays is rather large. The orange fronted bar area is set to the side wall of the restaurant with plenty of high backed stools on which to enjoy a cocktail or three. The majority of the room is set up for dining with lots of wooden tables - allegedly custom made from sustainable Brazilian wood. To the back of the venue is a hatch with views into the kitchen, so you can watch the chefs at work if you're so inclined.
We arrived around 1pm and the venue was definitely suffering from post-Christmas blues. They cannot have been more than a dozen tables in use. However, the venue still felt welcoming and vibrant despite the lack of clientele. We were acknowledged immediately by the bar man, and the manager arrived to greet and seat us within moments. Despite the emptiness of the venue, we weren't offered a choice of tables, just shown to the one that perhaps suited them best. That wasn't a problem as despite being glass-fronted, there is little in the way of a view at Las Iguanas.
The manager left us with a couple of menus and asked if we'd like them explained to us, or whether we'd like to navigate through them ourselves. We opted for the latter, but could see why he'd offered to run through it with us. The menu is rather rambling and messy to be honest. Once you've studied it for a while, it does begin to make more sense, but the initial impression is a little overwhelming and off-putting as there's a lot of information and lots of choices to be made. Once you've mastered the menu you'll feel like you're halfway to a GCSE qualification in Latin American food and drink....I kid you not.
~~~ THE MENU ~~~
Las Iguanas serve Latin American food and drink so there are plenty of Brazilian, Peruvian, and of course Mexican dishes on their menu. The menu is an interesting mélange of Mexican and South American-style food, so you get plenty of Mexican favourites like Fajitas, Enchiladas, Burritos and Nachos, as well as more exotic offerings such as Brazilian Xinxim (Lime Chicken in a creamy Crayfish and Peanut sauce with Rice, Green Beans, Coconut Farofa and Sweet Plantain) or Chilean Pasteles (Vegetarian Shepherd's pie made from Sweet Potatoes, Butternut Squash and mashed Sweetcorn).
Starters range in price from £2.30 (Mexican Poppadoms) up to the £6.20 mark (Chubby Gambas). There's a Taco Sharing Tray (£13.50) if you want to share a quick snack with an amigo, or you can choose a selection from their extensive Tapas range (3 dishes for £13.50 or 5 for £22.50).
For main courses there's a good range of salads, a burger option or a Beef Cuban Sandwich (£8 to £9) for the lighter appetite or those in a hurry. However if you have the time and appetite, the menu offers a veritable tour of Central and South American cuisine from Brazilian Coconut Curry to sizzling Mexican Fajitas (from £8 up to around £15). The full menu can be viewed and salivated over at http://www.iguanas.co.uk/food
Vegetarians are well catered for with many of the meat dishes offering a vegetarian alternative (marked with a large green V on the menu). There is also a special children's menu on offer - a main course, a dessert and a drink for £5.50.
~~~ OUR MEAL ~~~
Prior to our visit to Gunwharf Quays we'd had a quick look at the restaurant deals on offer www.moneysavingexpert.com, and managed to download a voucher for Las Iguanas offering us two main courses for the price of one from their à la carte menu. You don't need to sign up to any website or mailing list to get the voucher - you just simply click and print off the voucher from Money Saving Expert.
As I explained above, the menu is more than a little sprawling, and we decided to order a starter to share whilst we got to grips with the main courses on offer. Choosing the starter wasn't all that simple as even a platter of Breads, Chips and Dips (£3.90) was offered with three options - you could have it with either Olives, Marinated White Anchovies or Guacamole. We were confused as olives are not a dip yet it was listed under the "dips" option. In the end we choose Guacamole as it was most recognisable for its dipping qualities, and neither of us fancied white anchovies.
The platter arrived on a long wooden plank and consisted of four hunks of Wholemeal and Ciabatta bread, a small bowl filled with dunking Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, two large Tortilla chips and a second bowl filled with Guacamole studded with Ricotta Cheese and Pomegranate Seeds. The Tortilla chips were quite large and pleasantly spicy, but the breads pretty tasteless. However, the Guacamole dip was delicious, and the Ricotta Cheese wonderfully creamy. All in all we enjoyed our platter immensely - it took the edge off our appetites and allowed us to concentrate properly on the labyrinth that is the menu at Las Iguanas.
For main courses, we both had some difficulty in deciding what we wanted. I adore Chilli con Carne (£9.20), but I cannot handle it being too spicy as it numbs my taste buds. I was also tempted by the Chimichanga (£9.90) (described as a crisp Tortilla parcel served with Spicy Chicken, Peppers, Onion and Cheese and accompanied by Homemade Salsa, Guacamole, Sour Cream, Garlic and Coriander Rice and Refried Beans...whew). The trouble was that nowhere on the menu does it indicate the level of heat or spiciness of each dish. You can ask your server if the Chilli con Carne is hot, but levels of heat are subjective and someone's "Mild" maybe the next person's "Rather Fiery". Some scale of heat on the spicier dishes would make Las Iguanas' menu a lot more customer friendly. I wasn't prepared to risk the Chilli as I'd been caught out before on this dish where a server said it wasn't too hot, and I begged to differ. In the end I plumped for a dish called Barbacoa - Blazing Bird, which sounded a little like the chicken dishes I love at Nandos. At Las Iguanas you can have a half (£8.90) or whole (£15.50) chicken marinated in a choice of sauce and then flame grilled. The dish is served with Coleslaw and Fries or a Salad. There are three marinades to choose from and I went for the mildest - Honey Peri-Peri Sauce (you could also have Spicy Barbecue Jerk Sauce or Vivo - a flaming Habanero Sauce - both of which sounded like they'd be too hot for me to handle). I was most impressed with my Blazing Bird - it was a goodly portion of chicken and I struggled to finish all the meat on it. The coleslaw it came with was a little "tired", and made with red cabbage rather than white cabbage. The dish came served with Curly Fries and these were simply delicious and very moreish.
My partner was tempted by the Peruvian Pescado a la Macho (£13.60) described as Squid, Mussels, Crayfish, Prawns and Cod in a White Wine and Paprika sauce served with Rice and Green beans. He prevaricated for a while and then plumped for Churrasco Fiasco, which was Flame Grilled Rump Steak marinated in Cumin and Paprika served on skewers with Red Onion and Peppers. The dish was served on Cassava Fries, which were like croquette potatoes - nice but not as moreish as my Curly Fries. There was also a separate bowl of Garlic and Chipotle dipping sauce, which was extremely hot and only used sparingly on this occasion. The Rump Steak was cooked to order (medium rare) and was really tasty - you could really taste that it had been flame grilled. Both of us enjoyed our main courses immensely and not a scrap was returned to the kitchen uneaten.
Desserts were not included in their meal deal, but we decided to have a look just for the sheer hell of it. I thought that the selection was appealing enough but many of the choices were standard fare with a Latin American accent. For example Aztec Chocolate Cake (£4.90) is quite simply Chocolate Fudge Cake with a hint of orange, and Eton Mess is simply rebranded Sticky Ipanema Mess (£5.50) here. In the end we decided not to partake even though we were both tempted.
The bill for one starter, two main courses and drinks came to £31.30 - but we qualified for a rebate of the cheapest main course due to our 2 for 1 voucher, bringing the total down to a rather reasonable £22.40. All in all we considered it to be excellent value due to the quality of the food and the generosity of portions.
~~~ DRINKS ~~~
The bar in Las Iguanas is called "The Cachaçaria" and they serve a full range of well known beverages as well as plenty of Latin American drinks. Their speciality is their own Magnifica Cachaça (a traditional spirit a little like tequila), which is evidently distilled at Las Iguanas' own sugar cane plantation near Rio de Janeiro.
The drinks menu is easier to follow than the food one - thank heavens for small mercies. It's divided up into Cocktails and Punches, Wines, Beers and Ciders and Soft Drinks. The cocktail menu is divided up into countries so you can partake of a Caipirinha from Brazil, a Margarita from Mexico or a Mojito from Cuba...to name but a fraction of the list. Wines are mainly from Argentina or Chile with the only European choices being Spanish. In keeping with the Latino theme, beers wise you're looking at Spanish San Miguel, Mexican Corona or Brazilian Xingu. A pint of draught San Miguel will set you back £3.50 a pint...and himself greatly enjoyed his. I stuck to a boring glass of sparkling mineral water as I was concerned that the food may be a little too spicy and I'd need plenty of neutral liquid to quench the fire within.
A full list of their cocktails and other drinks can be seen at http://www.iguanas.co.uk/drink
~~~ RECOMMENDATION ~~~
I've eaten at many a Mexican restaurant over the years and found them enjoyable but rather samey with their virtually identikit décor and menus. Hats /sombreros off to Las Iguanas for doing something a little bit different. By extending their culinary boundaries to include other Central American countries as well as South American ones they've come up with some interesting menu choices. You've got all the old Mexican favourites as well as something a little out of the ordinary by offering Brazilian, Chilean and Peruvian dishes.
Alarming décor and music aside, we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at Las Iguanas and would certainly not hesitate to make a return visit. The food was very good and the service friendly.
Recommended with four stars...they loose one for the eye-wincing décor and the rather sprawling and confusing menu (not to mention their assault on my ear drums for an hour or so).
~~~ THE SMALL PRINT ~~~
There are 25 Las Iguanas outlets throughout the UK. Las Iguanas is an independent chain hailing originally from Bristol and started up in 1991.
108-111 East Side Plaza
Telephone: 02392 2293797
* This outlet has both indoor and outdoor seating
* Disabled access is very good
* Opening hours are Monday to Thursday 12pm to 11pm (with an extended closing time of 11.30pm on Friday and Saturday nights and an earlier Sunday closing time of 10.30pm)
* Happy Hour 12.00pm to 7.30pm daily and all day Sundays to Wednesdays
* All major credit cards accepted