Mexican Delights at La Iguana & a Peak at the Jazz Festival

The Plateau area is one of the trendiest areas of Montreal, so I decided to explore it a little further after my discoveries of Old Montreal. From my hotel I hopped into the subway at Place d’Armes and took the blue train north to Sherbrooke. I enjoyed a wonderful stroll through the St-Denis neighbourhood, considered by many to be the most typical of Montreal’s neighbourhoods. Hundreds of street cafés, restaurants and funky boutiques line the street.

The artsy St-Denis neighbourhood

The streets in the area are characterized by duplexes or triplexes that have the typical Montreal exterior staircases in the front, many of which are used as comfortable places of rest and relaxation by the local residents. Many of the houses also feature small balconies on the upper floors, most of which are accompanied by small bistro tables and chairs for the outdoor enjoyment of the apartment residents.

Montreal staircases always fascinate…

The rooflines of in this neighbourhood are also very unusual: dormers and fake mansards add interest to the architectural mix. The atmosphere is very relaxed, artsy and bohemian. I continued my walk west on a small street call rue Roy and came across a Mexican restaurant called “La Iguana” that also has a small outdoor sitting area. Every since my earlier trip to Mexico this year I have developed a taste for authentic Mexican food and La Iguana with its Mexican flair pulled me in.

I sat down at a comfortable table in the corner with a perfect view of the restaurant and the street outside. Unfortunately, the sky was clouding over and shortly after another tropical thunderstorm was unleashed on the city, the third one today.

La Iguana – a place for a great Mexican meal

To find out more about this restaurant I asked the owner, Fred Saunders, who jointly owns the restaurant with his wife Julie Chiasson, to join me for a bit. Over a mojito he started to tell me about La Iguana and how it all came about. Fred and Julie have travelled numerous times to Mexico together and fallen in love with the country and its flavours. Fred mentioned that they have visited many places on the coast, including Acapulco, Ixtapa, Playa del Carmen as well as Cozumel. Fred and Julie both enjoy scuba diving and have been enjoying underwater adventures in Mexico for the last four years.

Fred Saunders

They started dreaming of creating their own Mexican restaurant and finally three years ago, they opened “La Iguana”. Fred mentioned that it is open seven days a week for dinner and also opens Friday for lunch. Every Thursday to Saturday they feature live Cuban music that entertains the crowd with hot Latin rhythms. Fred mentioned that La Iguana also provides a catering service and a musician rental service for two to 21 musicians, a new service which they started a couple of months ago.

Fred further explained that the restaurant receives many guests from various hotels and tourism establishments. Just a week earlier, La Iguana hosted the British racing team which was in town for the Montreal Grand Prix. Fred mentioned that they referred to their experience at La Iguana as the “best Mexican food they have ever had”.

A huge variety of Tequila brands awaits at La Iguana

La Iguana is actually quite a small restaurant. It seats 64 people in total, including the tables on the sidewalk and the enclosed terrace which is also heated in the winter. Fred indicated that there are many nights when he has to turn away 50 to 60 people since he simply does not have the capacity to accommodate all the guests. For this reason he and Julie came up with the idea of opening another “La Iguana”. The second location will be downtown, and even beyond that Fred and Julie’s dreams extend to opening more locations, later on even in Ontario and different parts of Canada. Their dreams are to open a chain of “La Iguana” restaurants that will bring their concept of Mexican food to Canadians from coast to coast.

My medley appetizer: the La Iguana Special

Big plans are in store for the new edition of La Iguana which is scheduled to open next spring in downtown Montreal. The new restaurant will be more spacious and feature a grill, allowing guests to order a whole fish hot off the grill. In addition it will also house a museum with authentic artifacts that will be provided by the Mexican Embassy. In addition, the new location will showcase live iguanas and live parrots to create an authentic Mexican atmosphere.

Talking about the history of La Iguana, Fred shared with me that right from the start the restaurant got good reviews. Their interesting dishes and plentiful portions might have something to do with it. Fred indicated that their fajitas and burritos are extremely popular. Ceviche, an authentic Mexican dish with seafood marinated in lime juice and coriander has also become a favourite. La Iguana’s Camarones Acapulco consist of a half a pound of giant shrimps in garlic butter with orange zest and flambéed with Grand Marnier. This signature dish is a crowd pleaser and looks like a sun with yellow rays.

Shrimps Acapulco – colourful and scrumptious

Fred describes the cuisine at La Iguana as upscale Mexican and adds that the wine list is extensive with bottles ranging in price anywhere from $28 to $800. In addition, he and Julie have gone on research trips to Mexico and come back with 35 different types of Tequila that are all privately imported, another unique feature of La Iguana.

Well, with all this talk of tasty delicacies I was getting hungry and I wanted a chance to sample some of La Iguana’s food first-hand. I decided to order the La Iguana Special: a large platter featuring stuffed jalapeños, guacamole, potato skins, cheese quesadilla, chicken wings, nopales (cactus) and flautas (egg rolls), served with sour cream and a spicy sauce. This dish gave me a great overview of La Iguana’s cuisine and I savoured the tastes of Mexico. Then Fred surprised me with Shrimps Acapulco, one of La Iguana’s signature dishes featuring huge shrimp in a Grand Marnier sauce. My appetite was more than satiated but I just had to try La Iguana’s fried icecream for dessert which was a sinful and delicious way to cap off a very satisfying meal.

Fried icecream for dessert

After some relaxing and listening to the live Cuban music I thanked Fred and headed out into the warm summer night. I walked down Boulevard St. Laurent, or “The Main”, Montreal’s principal north-south connection that divides the city into an eastern (mostly francophone) and western (mostly Anglophone) part. The many restaurants were filled with people and street life was animated. I walked through the pedestrian area on Prince Arthur Street, another popular restaurant area, to head south to Sherbrooke Street, one of Montreal’s main east-west thoroughfares. From there I made it to St. Catharines Street, the headquarters of Montreal’s famous Jazz Festival.

Entrance to the Montreal Street Festival

Montreal’s Jazz Festival is in its 27th year and over the course of two weeks from June 28 to July 9, 2006 more than 400 concerts will have been held, the vast majority of them free. B.B. King’s 80th Birthday Event was held on June 28. It is the largest jazz festival in the world and a true signature event for the city, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors. The festival is centered around Place des Arts and the Complexe Desjardins and with my packed schedule over these next few days tonight was my only chance to get a sneak peak at Montreal’s Jazz Festival. The crowds in front of the main stage and on St. Catharines were filling the streets as far as the eye could see and the audience were swaying to the rhythms of Afrodizz, Montreal’s best Afrobeat group, in front of a huge audience at the Scène General Motors .

Afrodizz charm the crowd

What started 27 years ago as the dream of jazz aficionado Alain Simard has become the world’s biggest jazz festival that has featured stars like Ray Charles, Chick Corea, John Lee Hooker, Dave Brubeck, Muddy Waters, Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Chuck Mangione, Tony Bennett, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Holly Cole, Al Jareau and hundreds more. This years lineup included a tribute to Paul Simon, appearances by Dave Brubeck, Brad Mehldau, Etta James and The Neville Brothers. More than 2000 musicians will be coming to town to excite the crowds.

The streets are packed during Montreal’s Jazz Festival

With African rhythms swirling through my head I strolled back slowly to my hotel, reflecting on Montreal’s superb qualifications as one of the world’s major festival cities. I needed to catch enough rest for my early morning bicycle tour of Montreal.

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