Thirty-four years ago when Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken opened the first Border Grill in a 900-square-foot space on Melrose, they had to smuggle chipotle peppers out of Mexico in suitcases to make salsa. To say that a lot has changed since then would be, well, an understatement. The smoky peppers, once rare finds at even the best-stocked Latin groceries, are now sold at Ralphs (and share a name with a national burrito chain).
The pleasure of eating regional Mexican food—which Feniger and Milliken extolled to the masses on their mid-’90s Food Network show, Too Hot Tamales—has become one of the great luxuries of living in L.A. While it seemed eccentric in the early ’80s that two 20-something Midwestern women were obsessed with Mexico City’s panuchos and huaraches, the duo’s current zeal for Baja IPAs and Tijuana-style tacos is on trend in 2019.
Feniger and Milliken’s newest restaurant, Socalo, is a play on SoCal and “zocalo,” the word for a town square in Mexico. It opens later this spring inside Santa Monica’s Gateway Hotel and will be the latest addition to the chefs’ mini empire of Mexican-inspired restaurants spanning LAX to Las Vegas. Their 99-seat, all-day restaurant is also a return to their home turf: Only a mile east is the site of the former Border Grill flagship that Feniger and Milliken operated from 1990 until its closure in 2016.
This time around, their ambition is modest: feed the neighborhood (and those visiting the hospital across the street) delicious, ethically sourced food in an unpretentious environment—tortas, ceviches, veggie-stuffed tamales. There will be grab-and-go breakfast burritos and guava-cheese empanadas, Mexican microbrews on tap, and, as Feniger is fond of noting, “plenty of parking.”
But to suggest that Socalo is simply a neighborhood restaurant is to take for granted the decades Feniger and Milliken spent trailblazing a path for Socalo to exist. Long before there were global street food festivals, the women recognized the sophistication and brilliance of what was being served in the mercados of Mexico. Five years before Emeril was bam-ing everything in sight, they were on the Food Network educating America about Oaxacan barbecue. (They even did an episode, “Liver Lovers,” devoted to offal in Mexican cooking.) Gender parity wasn’t yet a rallying cry when Milliken was raising the profile of female-led kitchens as a founding member of the nonprofit Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. On a 1993 episode of Julia Child’s Cooking with Master Chefs, the duo showed how vegetarian food could be as satisfying as meat. Between the two of them, they sit on six nonprofit boards and have raised millions of dollars for causes ranging from child hunger to LGBT issues. “We like to use every opportunity we can to make a point to the people were cooking for,” Milliken says.
So while Socalo will be a neighborhood restaurant, it’s also a chance to continue the work they started as two young women with radical hairstyles (yes, you should google their hair). Plus, Milliken adds, “we should all be eating more Mexican food. It’s healthy. It’s more plant-based than any other cuisine. It’s complex, and it’s exciting.” These days who could argue with that?
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