Susan Feniger laughs heartily after she rushes into a banquet room at the Gateway Hotel on a recent morning, her hands full of bags of salsa macha. Turns out Mary Sue Milliken, with whom she owns and runs the Border Grill restaurants, has brought a deli cup full of the same rusty red salsa with her.
It’s a couple of weeks before opening day at Socalo, the pair’s new restaurant at the Santa Monica hotel, and the chefs are tasting renditions of the salsa, a heady mixture of roasted chiles and spices that they will serve there.
It’s been 38 years since Milliken and Feniger opened their first restaurant, City Cafe on Melrose Avenue. But it was Border Grill, which they opened in Hollywood in 1985 (there were five locations at one point), and the media presence they spun off of it (including an early Food Network show called “Too Hot Tamales”) that established the two as chefs 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.”
Although they were ahead of the media and many American chefs and restaurateurs in celebrating regional Mexican cooking in the 1980s, much has changed since. Los Angeles is now home to many outstanding regional Mexican restaurants — there is exceptional Yucatan cooking at Holbox and Chichén Itzá, Oaxacan at Guelaguetza, coastal Nayarit at Coni’Seafood — and a new generation of Mexican-American chefs, including Carlos Salgado, Wes Avila and Ray Garcia, who have crafted a regionless, progressive Angeleno style of Mexican food.
Milliken and Feniger are the first to say they don’t identify as ambassadors for Mexican cuisine. Instead, they describe themselves as collaborators with their chef, Giovanni Lopez, and as appreciators of the cuisine they built their careers 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.”
As such, they call Socalo a California canteen and Mexican pub that, like Border Grill, will serve the duo’s Mexican-inspired food. It is expected to open in mid-December.
The restaurant is meant to be a sort of edible narrative that chronicles their travels to different regions of Mexico and, in particular, Tijuana.
You can expect to find plenty of oysters, ceviche and sustainable seafood on the menu. The crudité platter will feature fresh vegetables as well as chicken chicharrones. Milliken also created a savory granola inspired 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 also reflective of a number of dishes that are dominating the conversations around Mexican food in Los Angeles at the moment, 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.