In today’s dining scene it’s easy to ignore a business whose vision is as panoramic as the Border Grill’s. The city’s appreciation of Mexican food has changed since Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken launched a restaurant that embraced a whole culture. A narrowly focused authenticity has become the coin of the realm, and the cuisine of local specialties that had long been overlooked by non-Latinos is the food we want. We pride ourselves on knowing the nuances of tamales from the tropics steamed in banana leaves and others from the highlands in corn husks, the large tamales of central Guatemala, the thin tamales of Oaxaca, the simmered goat stew of Jalisco, the more tomato-based one of Michoacán, and the oilier (read more flavorful) version from the city of Apatzingán.
From the start Feniger and Milliken’s style was more about being borderless than about having strict demarcations. When they opened the first Border Grill in 1985 on Melrose, the story line crackled. Here were two classically trained young women offering a version of Mexican—or at least Mexican inspired—cooking that the city hadn’t really seen before. Perhaps it was the consistently high quality, perhaps it was their irrepressible nature, but at the Border Grill you somehow forgot that caipirinhas and empanadas had nothing to do with Mexico. Their carne asada was more rib eye than strip steak, and the tangle of roasted garlic and ribbons of serrano pepper it came with wasn’t anything you’d find in a cubbyhole in the Distrito Federal, but it was respectful. And good.
Until the duo came around, the Mexican food available in L.A. restaurants either had a fake baronial tinge or tended toward cheese-drenched nachos and gloppy enchiladas. The Too Hot Tamales, the stage name Feniger and Milliken adopted, lavished the same reverence on masa and tinga that their peers reserved for sculpted crescents of petits légumes. As ambitious as they were brassy, they were among the first chefs in the city to pitch themselves as culinary stars, having their pictures snapped with fans while pushing books and signing merch. In time the pair relocated Border Grill to Santa Monica, expanded the concept into Las Vegas, opened a stand downtown on Figueroa, and rolled out the obligatory food truck. After Ciudad, their downtown pan-Latino gambit at Figueroa and 5th finally succumbed, they plugged a new Border Grill into the address.
So that’s where I recently found myself, gazing at the exterior elevator zooming up a tower of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, my fork poised in midair. Before me sat two wondrously tender green corn tamales, their corn husk wrappers steaming. They weren’t made from masa; the puree of corn was held together as if in a feat of molecular gastronomy. Both ancient and completely of the moment, the filling in the bundles was authentic—the very essence of tamale—yet anything but. Surprised by the billowing golden grain, I was reminded of just how good Border Grill is.
Cherry-picking a recipe, lifting it out of whatever mass of associations it might have for a culture and making it theirs, has been Feniger and Milliken’s m.o. since 1981, when they debuted City Café, a tiny restaurant nestled amid the punk boutiques on Melrose. I rememb-er its more self-conscious sequel, CITY—a white-on-white icebox where diners watched live feeds of the kitchen crew—as the only restaurant where I’ve been asked how I wanted my pork cooked. With Border Grill they found their footing. The question for me has been whether, even as the enterprise grew, their feet were too firmly planted—whether they’d been passed by: There are hipper places, like Más Malo, the downtown hot spot where you can have vegan menudo, a $12 flight of salsa, and all the fancy cocktails you desire. There are more authentic ones, too, from the humble mom-and-pop joint where you can have a gorgeous grilled snook in the style of Nayarit to Jimmy Shaw’s Lotería. And of course there’s John Sedlar, a chef I probably mention too much, whose high-end survey of Latin food at Rivera bristles with intelligence and integrity. After all these years Feniger and Milliken can no longer be considered cutting edge; they are, in fact, an L.A. institution.
The location of their latest outpost isn’t the prettiest. If the two-story concrete-and-glass structure were on a stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard instead of downtown, we’d call it a nice strip mall. A Johnny Rockets and a La Salsa give the building an impersonal look, but the restaurant’s sign—its filigreed B and G swooping like something Zorro might have scrawled from the saddle with his sword—cheers things up. Terra-cotta-colored parasols and a burst of oilcloth-covered tables announce the entrance. Inside, TVs flicker at the bar. Cartoonish murals decorate the walls. The downbeat of the Buena Vista Social Club reverberates through the cavernous interior as you sip your margarita—a wicked lick of top-shelf tequila behind a citrusy veil. Even in this windowless space, vibrancy reigns.
At its best Feniger and Milliken’s cook-ing has a joyful quality, an enthusiastic curiosity that can bring new focus to any preparation. The menu has a section devoted to quesadillas, a standby you’ve had a hundred times but not like this. The mix of manchego, cotija, and panela cheeses provides an oozing complexity that the kitchen can embellish with wild mushrooms and epazote (a traditional herb), musky poblanos, or carne asada. My favorite has been the special that came with slivered dried figs, their sweetness underscored by the warm, yielding interior and the crispness of the blistered tortilla.
There has never been anything dis-tant and ethnographic about the pair’s approach; Feniger and Milliken are still able to draw you into the richness of Mexican cuisine through the ingredients. The sides, here called “platillos,” reveal a fascination that is as engaged as ever. The fried plantains, their natural sugars brought out and caramelized, have the starchy heft of a staple; the quinoa salad—moist and lush with diced red onions—has something bracing and necessary about it. As ubiquitous as ceviche is, here it comes off as an exploration: In the Baja version, they artfully cube shrimp so that the chunks of flesh maintain their bite; in the Peruvian, aji amarillo chiles and sliced tilapia are arranged on plantain chips, the lime set off with a hint of ginger.
If their cooking has a weakness, it’s when curiosity gives way to practicality, research to routine. Sometimes you get the unmistakable impression that you are sitting in one wing of a large machine. Missteps like a barely warm tortilla soup might be written off as the occasional lapse of a kitchen serving a crowd that’s always rushing back to the office or to the Music Center. But with other dishes they seem content just getting the evocative language right and leaving it at that. “Negra Modelo braised short ribs…[with] molasses habañero BBQ sauce” promises a dreamy confluence of tropical intensity and the Austrian brewing traditions that arrived in Mexico in the 1860s. It is nothing but a dry piece of meat finished with apple-cranberry slaw atop a desiccated bed of corn “polenta.” The tres leches, a square of sponge cake cut from a tray and drenched in syrup, may be quick and easy for the kitchen, but it’s an affront to the classic dessert. And too many of the offerings come garnished with black beans, green rice, and red rice, limiting their individuality. You’ll find strands of red pickled onion tossed over tacos, chiles rellenos, and portobello mushroom mulitas as indiscriminately as sour cream is squirted at your neighborhood margarita mill.
Not that the pickled onion doesn’t have its use. In the Yucatán pork its zing brings out the achiote in the stewed meat, the orange and cinnamon in the marinade, and the earthiness in the roasted plantains.It helps one cog inside the dish drive another and acts as a reminder of why we come here: to go on a journey with chefs doing Mexican food.
Feniger and Milliken first met at Le Perro-quet, a Chicago temple of old-boy probity, and reconnected when both were in France honing their skills during the heady days of nouvelle cuisine. Laurent Quenioux of Bistro LQ—possibly the only chef in Los Angeles interested in making a proper choucroute garnie—remembers Feniger at the Michelin three-star L’Oasis, a brave young woman holding her own in a kitchen full of determined Frenchmen who were not going to let any wide-eyed American hinder their career path.
Behind the Too Hot Tamales’ shtick is a culinary intelligence and a sense of craft. One of my more memorable meals here started with seared greens—the vegetal ribs playing off the mixture of tender kale, escarole, and black cabbage, the salt accentuated by the slight char. I don’t know if that’s great Mexican food or great Chinese food, but it’s straight-up great. Next came the pescado veracruzano, a hunk of sustainable halibut that bobbed in a bowl of broth finished with a spoonful of butter—an accomplished French touch—and laden with tomatoes that had been blanched, chopped, and seeded. Subtly sophisticated, it was far from traditional but not flippant. A goat’s milk flan carried the lingering note of amber caramel, while my companion’s pastel rufina, a kind of baroque construction of puff pastry and sweetened cream cheese, threw a lanyard to the genteel pastelerías, or tea halls, of Mexico City, where nannies and mothers and perfectly dressed children descend in the afternoon. They nailed it, I thought. This is why Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken have been able to stay relevant in an ever-changing landscape. They’re not going through the motions; they have something to offer, something to say.
Photograph by Lisa Romerein