Susan Feniger giggles generously after she hurries into a meal room at the Gateway Hotel on an ongoing morning, her hands loaded with sacks of salsa macha. Turns out Mary Sue Milliken, with whom she possesses and runs the Border Grill cafés, has brought a cup loaded with the equivalent red salsa with her.
It’s a little while before opening day at Socalo, the pair’s new eatery at the Santa Monica lodging, and the culinary experts are tasting interpretations of the salsa, a strong blend of simmered chiles and flavors that they will serve there.
It’s been a long time since Milliken and Feniger opened their first eatery, City Cafe on Melrose Avenue. Be that as it may, it was Border Grill, which they opened in Hollywood in 1985 (there were five areas at a certain point), and the media spun off of it (counting an early Food Network show called “Too Hot Tamales”) that built up the two as culinary specialists on the national stage.
“They explored regional Mexican cooking a decade before the idea became fashionable,” Jonathan Gold wrote last year when he announced that Milliken and Feniger would be the recipients of the second annual Gold Award. “A lot of people who wouldn’t dare admit it at the moment may have first tasted panuchos, tinga, freshly made tortillas and pescado Veracruzana at Border Grill.”
Despite the fact that they were in front of the media and numerous American culinary specialists and restaurateurs in celebrating local Mexican cooking during the 1980s, much has changed since. Los Angeles is presently home to numerous remarkable territorial Mexican cafés — there is uncommon Yucatan cooking at Holbox and Chichén Itzá, Oaxacan at Guelaguetza, waterfront Nayarit at Coni’Seafood — and another age of Mexican-American culinary experts, including Carlos Salgado, Wes Avila and Ray Garcia, who have created a regionless, dynamic Angeleno style of Mexican nourishment.
Milliken and Feniger are the first to state they don’t recognize as representatives for Mexican food. Rather, they depict themselves as colleagues with their gourmet chef, Giovanni Lopez, and as appreciators of the cuisine they constructed their professions on.“We have never been good at being boxed into a certain thing,” Milliken said. “We’re evolving along with the city. It’s not all 100% percent Mexican. This is our 2020 take on where Mexican food meets California.”
All things considered, they call Socalo a California canteen and Mexican bar that, similar to Border Grill, will serve the pair’s Mexican-propelled nourishment. It is ready to open in mid-December.
The restaurant is intended to be a kind of consumable story that chronicles their moves to various areas of Mexico and, specifically, Tijuana.
You can hope to discover a lot of clams, ceviche and sustainable fish on the menu. The crudité platter will include fresh vegetables just as chicken chicharrones. Milliken likewise made a flavorful granola motivated by a dish she had in Brazil and plans to serve it for breakfast with chopped tomatoes and cucumber with yogurt and extra-virgin olive oil.
The opening menu is intelligent of various dishes that are leading the discussions around Mexican nourishment in Los Angeles right now, including birria and vampiros.
“We’re making the most delicious tacos,” Milliken said. “We cook the cheese on the comal and stick the tortilla to it. We’re using that technique in several different ways and working it into our burritos so that it creates that crunchy cheese before you fill it and fold it.”
Feniger said she is“jazzed” about the lamb birria, also inspired by a recent trip to Mexico. The two are serving their version with broth for dipping and pickled vegetables. For dessert, there’s ripe roasted and puréed plantains with oat milk custard and chia seeds.
The entrance to Socalo opens into a large bar area with long communal tables and garage windows that roll up creating an extended patio; the dining room is framed by large windows that look out onto Santa Monica Boulevard.
At the bar, there will be 12 beers on tap — one local beer and 11 Mexican imports — as well as a large selection of tequila, mezcal, pox, sotol, raicilla and bacanora. And like the rum tastings at one of their former restaurants, Ciudad, Socalo will offer rum, tequila and mezcal tastings.
Socalo will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with counter service for breakfast and lunch and full service at dinner. As for the name, the chefs say they were influenced by the vibrancy of the central plazas that serve as gathering places across Mexico.
“Almost all the towns we visited had these squares in the center, and that is where we would end up after 10 p.m., after a full day of eating,” Feniger says of the name, which is a combination of SoCal and zócalo, or “town square” in Spanish.