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Mexican eatery hits high notes in food, decor

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Even amid the wide variety of eateries and businesses on Union Turnpike it’s hard to miss the former college bar that was...

By Kathianne Boniello

For anyone looking for a restaurant with personality and tropical flair there is only one destination: Iguanas in Fresh Meadows.

Even amid the wide variety of eateries and businesses on Union Turnpike it’s hard to miss the former college bar that was transformed two years ago into a family-oriented Mexican restaurant.

Whether it is the eye-popping decor, the generous portions of Mexican and American food or the wide variety of tequila served at the bar, nearly every inch of Iguanas Mexican Grill and Cantina at 179-11 Union Turnpike reflects the vibrant personalities of co-owners and twin brothers Carlos and Alfonso Londono.

The restaurant is visually stunning, both inside and out: a bright red sign and neon yellow facade set the eatery apart from other places, and to say the intensely colorful interior catches the eye with its tiny lights, fish tanks and Mexican artifacts is an understatement.

The Londono twins began their business venture as Hoops in 1994, a college sports bar just down the road from St. John’s University.

Working both behind the bar and in the dining room serving meals to customers during a recent interview, co-owner Carlos Londono, 28, said he and his brother decided to make a change in their business about two years ago.

“I wanted a mellower atmosphere, a more family-oriented place,” he said. “We grew up in a restaurant in the Cavalier in Jackson Heights.”

Carlos Londono described the Cavalier, co-owned by the twins’ father, Alfonso Sr., for 30 years, as a neighborhood landmark in Jackson Heights. The family restaurant on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights has been popular since 1950, said Carlos, and the twins spent their formative years working for their father. Their heritage is Colombian.

Closing down Hoops and opening Iguanas meant some big changes, Carlos said, including more than doubling the size of the restaurant by adding a large dining area and kitchen to make the eatery more family-friendly.

The menu at the Mexican restaurant is more than just Mexican, thanks in part to the culinary skills of Alfonso Londono.

A graduate of New York Culinary Institute, Alfonso Londono said the Iguanas menu can suit a variety of tastes and is often modified to make it interesting for customers.

“We change the menu every season,” he said. “If you keep the same thing all the time, the people get bored.”

That menu features more than just classic Mexican dishes like burritos, chimichangas, enchiladas and tacos — it also has a child’s menu, traditional American food like sandwiches and vegetarian meals.

Oh, and there’s one other thing about the Iguanas menu that should be recognized: the more than 198 varieties of tequila the twins order from around the world.

“We have the most of any place in New York state,” Carlos Londono said proudly.

Beyond the smoking, sizzling fajitas or the exotic tequilas, one of the most entertaining aspects of the friendly restaurant is the environment: colorful lights sparkling in every corner, the entrancing fish in specially lit tanks and the Mexican artifacts that adorn the walls.

“It all came from Mexico,” Carlos said of the native wooden masks, painted wooden parrots and — of course — iguanas that jump out from amid a variety of fanciful sombreros.

Alfonso said “we try to give it a tropical atmosphere so people would enjoy it. We did it all ourselves.”

And how did the twins come up with the name Iguanas?

“Because I knew they had iguanas in Mexico,” Carlos said with a smile “and because I had a 5-footer at home.”

Iguanas is open seven days a week and features live mariachi music on Friday and Saturday evenings. The restaurant also does catering and local deliveries, Alfonso Londono said.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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