Any afternoon or night of the week, there is an exciting buzz around the hottest little corner at the crossroads of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach — at the entrance of Flying Iguana. If you’ve dined there, you know the vibe and probably can’t wait to return. If you’re unfamiliar with this Latin fusion restaurant that oozes with personality, it’s time to walk in and let the staff lavish you with fabulous food and professional enthusiastic service.
When owner Al Mansur chose the beaches location in 2013, he wanted to create a new concept that would combine South American and Mexican cuisine with an extensive tequila and margarita selection. For eight years, it has become its own destination of fun, from its distinctive colorful atmosphere and live music on the weekend to food that has been a winner with guests and staff; they all do an incredible job taking care of a continual “full house!”
With 100-plus tequilas and a huge selection of craft beer, there is plenty to sip and sample! It’s impossible to choose just one margarita or specialty cocktail — so begin with the margarita that pays homage to the prior landmark on the site — choose “The Swap Shop” (remember the Sun Dog Diner? It was a true swap shop of “things”!) Unique to Flying Iguana is also having three signature margaritas on draft — made with the same love — but available for the times when they just need to speed up service.
Operating as one big family according to General Manager JayVee VanValkenburgh who has been at the helm of Flying Iguana since opening day, she brings a cool, calm personality to nearly 100 employees as a mentor and leader. From her first restaurant job at the age of 15 in Hendersonville, Tennessee, she knew that someday she would manage a restaurant. Within days of arriving in Florida, she landed a position working for Al Mansur in Al’s Pizza in 2002 until Flying Iguana’s launch. “I’m not better than anyone here; I just have a different job!”
A great manager always needs a great chef to balance the leadership team and Flying Iguana is excited with their newly appointed Executive Chef Dwight Mosby who has been with the restaurant for eight years. “My kitchen feels like home and we’ve had very little turnover of the team which creates a really happy environment.”
With many of their herbs and veggies actually grown at the restaurant on the chef’s rooftop garden soaking up the Florida sun (sorry fans — it’s off limits unless you’re the chef) — it’s no wonder that their famous guacamole is irresistible. Prepared tableside, it’s fresh and absolutely deliciously tastefully customized for your table. It’s hard to imagine a lunch or dinner when you wouldn’t include it in your “shareables” with the table! Paired with warm chips, I dare you to try just one!
Being a taco connoisseur is easy at Flying Iguana when you can “fly” to heaven with more than a dozen tempting choices — including their steak taco (anticucho marinated tender hanger steak, grilled onions, aji verde, fresno chiles and pepitas), crispy pork belly taco (rum n’ coke glazed, watermelon, cotija and pickled onions) or blackened shrimp taco (ginger purple cabbage slaw, chipotle aioli and mango pico).
I don’t know of any other restaurant that has a gluten-friendly menu as lengthy or exciting as Flying Iguana. If you’re a healthy diner and always hunting for the most delicious way to begin a date, afternoon meeting or simply a self-indulgent treat, the grilled stuffed avocado is my favorite dish (shrimp escabeche, green olives, red radish, grape tomatoes and onions) — and could actually be your meal if you’re a light eater. It’s lusciously low calorie and memorable! With more than 30 selections, don’t miss checking out Peruvian chicken salad (field greens, romaine, sweet potato, caramelized onion, spiced pepita and aji verde dressing) or slow-roasted pulled pork (black beans, jasmine rice, sweet potato fries, avocado, sweet plantains, pickled onion, queso fresco and corn tortilla). YUMMY!
For the ‘meat and potatoes’ appetite and palate, chimichurri steak pairs the most deliciously daring duet of marinated steak, potato au gratin, roasted cauliflower and salsa criolla. Its presentation reinforces the glamour of how Flying Iguana’s chefs take pride in every small detail that really isn’t taken for granted when it arrives at your table. True foodies will notice even the little innuendoes of garnishing and artistry!
In today’s enjoyable bar world, Flying Iguana has something for even the most finicky taste from lagers and pilsners, ales and cider to their margaritas and specialty cocktails. The drink prices won’t soar your dining bill to the rafters either; budget-conscious lunches, dinners and Sunday brunch might even tally to under $25 by ordering two signature “gourmet tacos” and a specialty beverage!
Every party has to come to an end even at Flying Iguana; but not before the bit of magic that comes with a little dessert “crunch” at the Iguana. It’s the crispy crunch of cream-filled “crispy churros” — (Spanish donuts) that will secure this restaurant’s place in your heart. It’s amazing that a texture with such big personality can be craved after a hearty meal. Imagine that dessert is a speed bump — you have to slow down and focus on its deliciousness. They are delivered hot to the table, filled with succulent warm, oozy custardy yumminess — so don’t jump in too quickly. Let them first lure you with the sweet aroma and then nibble gently. Even without plunging the beautiful fried churros into its tres leches dipping sauce, I award it a crunchy “10.”
The exciting news is the upcoming second location in Avondale — another innovative Iguana on Park will open this summer. The colors, feel, atmosphere and delicious Latin-American and Mexican fusion cuisine will be very similar — but always with a clever interpretation. Now I can only dream about chorizo and potato empanadas, esquites (chargrilled Mexican street corn on the cob) and shrimp ceviche!
“Let the good times fly.”