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A WALK ON THE MILD SIDE

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
When Kevin Taylor, chef and owner of one of the city's few nationally known restaurants, Zenith American Grill, decided to open a second, more downscale eatery, he thought it would be a surefire hit to import the unique flavors of dishes from Oaxaca and the Yucatan. After all, this city is perpetually smitten with Mexican fare, although the definition of what constitutes Mexican food is as loose as the typical bowl of refried beans you get around here.

Besides, Taylor had always had his own love affair with the low-fat, big-bite, colorful foods of these two regions, especially since both have retained the culinary sophistication that made the Spaniards long to be permanent houseguests of Montezuma (okay, the gold thing was a factor, too) back in the sixteenth century. The Yucatan peninsula, which is where Cortes and the rest of the troublemakers originally landed, has quite a way with the seafood reeled in from the bordering Gulf of Mexico; Oaxaca, a former Aztec stronghold south of Mexico City, still uses the indigenous avocados, pineapple, papaya and squashes in many of its dishes. What better way to rescue a Denver drowning in lard-laden, cornstarch-thickened sauces than to resuscitate it with a breath of pure Mexican cooking?

To make his bold venture as authentic as possible, Taylor took a much-publicized trip south of the border and spent considerable time and money hauling ingredients back. Considering Taylor's reputation and all the publicity surrounding the long-awaited opening, it's not surprising that when Cafe Iguana finally showed its face in January, the crowds were there to greet it. During its first two months, the eighty-seat restaurant shoveled out 500 meals a day.

But as is often the case in fickle Denver, diners dropped Cafe Iguana almost as quickly as they had embraced it. What went wrong?

"They didn't get it," Taylor says now. "People were telling me it was a little too spicy or too subtle. We knew we were taking a risk, but it's not my thing to take the time to educate everyone. We exposed them to it and they didn't understand it. It is my job to give the public what it wants, so we changed the menu. And now everyone seems happy."

The revamped menu reflects Taylor's flair with Southwestern food, which is a big part of Zenith's appeal, but Iguana's dishes have fewer refinements and lower prices. Most of the other changes Taylor made involved toning down or reworking the recipes to appeal to fussier palates; sadly, only a handful of true Mexican touches remain.

That didn't stop Bon Appetit from once again focusing on Taylor--the current issue of the cooking magazine includes recipes from Cafe Iguana. If you make them at home, at least you can add some spice; on our first visit to the refigured Iguana we found the kitchen far too timid. For instance, the chile relleno appetizer ($4.50) no longer arrives draped with a fiery chipotle orange sauce, but instead sits atop a sweet orange sauce perked up by a dried poblano, the semi-mild ancho. Although the relleno itself was not the overcooked wet sock you find at some so-called Mexican places, the poblano chile was crusted with cornmeal that had the consistency of cardboard and about as much flavor. The cheese inside, however, was a marvel: Taylor still imports it from Oaxaca, and it oozed soft and butterfat-rich out of the chile like warm caramel. An unnecessary blob of "avocado salsa," which bore a suspicious resemblance to the side of guacamole ($1.25) we'd also ordered, came with the appetizer, but we sent it back when we found that both avocado concoctions had been prepared with lime juice way past its prime. To Iguana's credit, a fresh batch was sent out immediately, no questions asked. Although the avocado was hand-mashed and absolutely fresh, the salsa packed little chile punch.

The chipotle salsa that came with the appetizer quesadilla ($4.75) had also been stripped of all its fire, but the quesadilla itself held some nicely seasoned chicken. The bird in the blue-corn-fried chicken sandwich ($6.75) had not fared as well. For some reason, the pounded piece of meat didn't taste like chicken, or blue corn, or anything else for that matter; the sourdough bread was the sandwich's strongest component. I was ready to send the plate back until I tried the side of spicy onion rings--and after that, there was no way I was going to give it up. The confetti-thin strips of onion had been fried and then dusted with New Mexican red chile powder as fine as talcum. Slightly salty and thinly greasy, these rings made for the kind of compulsive munching that sends people into twelve-step programs.

Another huge mound of onion rings came with the pulled pork ($8.50). Although the pork was livelier than the chicken, I had expected it to be more flavorful yet, since Iguana smokes whole pork loins in the kitchen, then roasts them for several hours before "pulling" the tender meat apart. The pork came with a gentle roasted-pepper sauce and a bland green-chile tamale.

We found Cafe Iguana much tastier on our second trip. We started this meal with the seviche ($6.50), a marinated matchup of rock shrimp and silky-textured marlin that was so breezy and fresh it was like sucking on limes while swimming in the Gulf. The shrimp with jalapeno cocktail sauce ($6.25) exhibited the same brightness; the sauce was beautifully orchestrated, with just enough chile heat to bring up the rest of the flavors without overpowering them. Our only complaint: Both of these starters were served in long, narrow parfait-style glasses, and we had to mash the contents around in order to get them out, creating an unappetizing frog-in-a-blender design on the glass.

The Caesar salad ($4.50) also suffered from poor design. Whole romaine leaves had been stacked one on top of the other on a plate exactly the size of the lettuce--which meant that any attempt to cut the three-inch-high pile down to bite-sized portions shoved the whole salad onto the table. Consuming it just wasn't worth the effort, particularly since the dressing was standard-issue and the red-chile croutons numbered a whopping two. A much better way to eat our vegetables was the smooth, chilled gazpacho ($3.50) drizzled with lime cream. It tasted fresh and healthy, the perfect summer soup. The tortilla soup ($3.50), on the other hand, was a stew for all seasons: a thick, spicy mix of avocados, chicken, tomatoes and cheese.

Posole is usually another can't-miss soup, but Taylor's hominy-dominant variation of red posole backfired. This very dry, brothless posole did no favors for the garlic- and cumin-crusted pork ($7.95) that it came with. The pork itself, while well-cooked and filled with flavor, needed more than a few slivers of grilled bananas to balance its spiciness. The juicy charbroiled half chicken ($7.75) fared better because of its covering of mole negro, one of the holdouts from Taylor's old menu. This mole was dark and deep, seemingly packed with a thousand different seasonings. Still more spices showed up in the cinnamony chile-tomato sauce that arrived with the soft taco ($7.25). Iguana uses canela, a Mexican spice that has a rounder flavor and holds up better in sauces than regular cinnamon or cassia (a related spice that's often sold in the States as cinnamon). The bittersweetness of the canela offset the chile's heat and, when mixed with Asiago cheese and grilled sirloin, made for a very heady combination.

Taylor's talent for mixing and matching flavors is showcased in his chile chocolate cake ($4), a flourless version that he's served at Zenith for years (Zenith's pastry chef makes Iguana's desserts). We couldn't taste the ancho chile at all--you're not supposed to--but it was obviously responsible for the depth of the bittersweet chocolate sweetened with cinnamon. The flan ($3.50), too, was filled with cinnamon flavor, made sweeter with maple; the caramelized grilled pineapple and bananas ($3.50) were deceptively simple.

Although Cafe Iguana has come a long way from Oaxaca and the Yucatan, it needs to take a few more steps before its chameleonlike transformation is completely successful. Luckily for Taylor, he has a touch that needs no translation.

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