While most Brits have now embraced a variety of world cuisines,food from some countries has been slower to reach our shores. Delicacies from Central and South America definitely remain under-represented. London has a smattering of independent restaurants from this corner of the globe (plus the Mexican chain Wahaca) and Brazilian rodizio places are gradually popping up nationwide, but it's probably fair to say that Las Iguanas is the best-known Latin American eatery in the UK. Established in Bristol in 1991, there are now 28 branches across Britain, including one on Park End Street in Oxford. The kitchen draws inspiration from numerous countries across Central and South America, largely Mexico and Brazil, although dishes from other nations (and a few geographically hazy but tasty sounding numbers) also pepper their menu. You certainly won't want for choice at Las Iguanas: all tastes are catered for, including fussy vegetarians like myself who wouldn't touch a rodizio restaurant with an asparaus spear.
One Tuesday night every month in the Oxford branch of Las Iguanas, that Latin American geography I mentioned gets a little more soecific. A three-course set menu from one of the countries that make up the continent is also on offer to diners. In August, Brazil took the culinary spotlight. The welcome caipirinha (the country's signature cocktail, or 'drink of the people' as the menu would have you believe) seemed to speed our decision-making: with three options for each course (one meat, one fish, one veg) there's just enough choice. M and I opted for the salt cod bolinhos (fritters) and the cheese empanadas (pastries) to start, rejecting the least Brazilian-sounding option of spinach and chicken dip served with tortilla chips. Aren't they a product of Central America's behemoth instead? Ah well, it's all a big Latin American love-in at Las Iguanas, so a bit of cross-border food trading can be excused.
Starters were served promptly by our friendly waiter. The presentation and portion sizes were both above average: M and I already had the feeling we'd be rolling home bolinho-shaped after our meal. Of the two, we preferred the empanadas: although their slightly crisp texture suggested the traditional method of deep frying had been at work, they didn't taste artery-clogging. The cheese inside was pleasantly gooey, and the spicy cranberry salsa was an unexpectedly tasty complement. The salt cod fritters were, as M pointed out, 'a bit salty', but worked well with the accompanying aioli and rocket garnish.
|The difficult-to-photograph bobo|
Next up was Brazil's traditional feijoada for M and an intriguingly named seafood bobo for me (chicken, steak or butternut squash crepes being eschewed this time). Feijoada is a meaty stew made up of braised beef, chorizo and black beans with a garlic and red wine sauce, served with rice and plantain. It was reportedly tasty: the beans were particularly flavoursome and held their texture rather than turning to mush. The chorizo was good too, the beef perhaps not top quality but fine for a stew. It was good to see plantain featuring in both of our dishes: it's not something we're often served in the UK, and a different taste makes a welcome change from the usual medley of vegetables on our menus. My seafood bobo was elaborately presented in a clay pot, with a candle to keep it warm. A good selection of fish (prawns, mussels and cod) were cooked in a spicy tomato, cassva and coconut milk sauce, and also served with rice and plantain. To bring yet more flavour to this carnival in a bowl, I was also given a spicy salsa and some toasted coconut farofa. The salsa I soon discarded as unecessary, but the coconut added more depth and an interesting texture to the dish. Despite sounding like some kind of bogeyman, the bobo was fresh-tasting and recommendable. Again, portions of both dishes were generous without being over-facing: you definitely feel you're getting value for money with the set menu.
Given the speed with which our desserts appeared, I had a feeling they weren't going to be something a Brazilian grandma had laboured over for the occasion. I find that pudding is often a chain restaurant's downfall, as they're so easy to buy in and refrigerate. Sadly this proved the case here, with both of our desserts tasting ever so slightly of fridge. We regretted rejecting the most Brazilian-sounding dessert, the quindim de yaya (apparently this means 'girlish charm' - why on earth did we turn it down?). If the promise of feminine charm didn't lure us in to order this baked custard flan, the word 'homemade' should have. Instead, we opted for the chocolate pot and the dulce de leche and macadamia cheesecake. The Argentinian caramel that is dulce de leche (ah, there's that inter-country food swapping again) is lip-lickingly divine. It's also my joint favourite ice cream flavour ever. So naturally I went for that. But it didn't taste so much of sweet, gooey caramel as I'd hoped. In fact I detected a hint of garlic (or maybe the taste of the bobo just lingered longer than expected). M's chocolate pot wasn't quite what we expected, but was pleasant nonetheless. A misplaced comma in the menu (layers of dark chocolate, sponge) misled us: there was more sponge in evidence than dark chocolate, and the coffee Kahlua taste was definitely dominant.
For £21.50 for 3 courses and a drink, the themed set menus offer great value if you fancy trying something a bit different. And let's face it, whose Tuesday evenings couldn't do with a bit of Latin American flavour? Upcoming nights include Venezuela (4 Sep), Cuba (2nd Oct) and Mexico (6 Nov). If you don't fancy going the whole enchilada and committing to three courses, give the regular menu a try. There's plenty on there (including enchiladas) to suit everyone, and if you're feeling adventurous there's bound to be something new to try. No matter what night you visit, there's always a bit of atmosphere in Las Iguanas too. As someone who dreads a silent restaurant complete with waiters hovering expectantly, the lively music and flag-filled decor are a welcome touch. There's also a bar at the front of the restaurant with a nightly happy hour if you fancy a mojito or caipirinha. The continent's drinks may be more familiar to us than its food for now, but you could easily be converted.
Las Iguanas is at 40 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1JD. Tel: 01865 263150 or book online.