Monday, February 13, 2012

City Night at Border Grill Downtown LA, February 29th,2012: A Tale of Two Hot Tamales

I tell you I just can't get enough of these nostalgia dinners--bring back all the restaurants I missed when I was either too young, too broke, or too busy daydreaming. On Wednesday, February 29th, the trailblazing City Cafe--the restaurant that put chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken on the map--returns for one special night.

City opened in 1981 with a crazy idea, 11 tables, and a hot plate with the flavors of Asia and Latin America delivered by way of French technique--the rest is history. In '85 City became Border Grill as the attractive flavors of Latin America became the preferred spice, and seasoning for these Two Hot Tamales.

From there they opened a few other Border Grills, then Ciudad (which became the downtown Border Grill this last year), opened one of the best luxe loncheros in town; they had hits as cookbook authors and on their own Food Network cooking show; and both hung tough on two separate seasons of Top Chef Masters. On her own Susan Feniger opened Street, a celebration of her love of Asian street foods. But, the old customers still beg them to bring back some of those dishes from City; and every 4 years, on Leap Day, City fires up its stoves for an evening of delicious memoirs. The dinner will take place on Feb. 29th from 5pm-10pm at the Downtown LA Border Grill. It will be $75 for a 4-course dinner.

I remember frequenting Border Grill when I first moved to LA in '95,--at one time or another I'd been to the Las Vegas Border Grill, Pasadena(closed), Santa Monica, Ciudad, the Border Grill Truck, and finally the new DTLA location. I still remember coming home after dining at the Pasadena Border Grill after ordering a mollete made with portabello mushrooms in place of the telera(bread roll), stuffed with refried beans. I thought it brilliant, and was sad to see it come off the menu. I had my first prickly pear margarita at a Border Grill. I also think the avocado and amaranth taco from the BG truck is one of the best vegetarian tacos in the US. These gals did it first, they are trailblazers.

Hola, que tal con las Hot Tamales, cabrones? Son puras chingonas y es la neta!

Chef Mary Sue Milliken, DTLA Border Grill Executive Chef Monique King, and Chef Susan Feniger

I spoke with the Two Hot Tamales on the phone before attending a preview of the City menu about how all this happened and about what they're up to these days. And, they are living proof that the best decisions are made will bending elbows.

SGLA: What was the dining scene like before City opened, and how did you become interested in ethnic cuisines?

SF: We'd been working in French restaurants in the 70's, but you always worked along Hispanic guys in the kitchen, and they were always doing staff meals--throwing something together in 15 minutes that was amazing, and that really piqued my interest.

MSM: Back then everything was drowned in sauces--we were trained in French nouvelle, but it wasn't my first love.

SGLA: Where did the two of you meet?

SF: In Chicago(1978). We were both working at Le Perroquet, an amazing French restaurant very ahead of its time. It focused on country French cuisine: confit, country pâtés, cassoulet, brandade, we clarified our own butter, and the chef made a butter wrap that covered a pastry--this made a big impression on me. This place made me start thinking about food costs and running a business.

We then met up again in Paris, I was at L'Oasis in the south of France, before that I was at Ma Maison with Wolfgang [Puck] and Mary Sue was at Restaurant d'Olympe.

MSM: Back then everyone aspired to apprentice in Europe--well--France.(laughs)

SGLA: What were some of the cuisines that first inspired you to break away from French cooking?

SF: Growing up in the Mid-West there were lots Chinese food places you went to on Sundays in Toledo, Ohio--Detroit had a strong Middle-Eastern scene--and there was this great Greek restaurant in downtown Toledo that had 6 pots on the stove and you got to pick whatever you wanted.

In '82 I went to India and was blown away by the flavors and ingredients: curries, tamarind.

MSM: We went out to Anely's tacos and thought it was the best thing in the world. We'd come back with 2 dozen carnitas tacos and were just blown away. That was the beginning of the idea that there was a cuisine that was complex and hadn't been explored.

I loved the rustic styles and braises--not the fussy squirt bottle food. Every time I traveled I'd get excited about Greek, like the first time I was in Chicago. Today I'd probably think it was shitty but at 16 it was fabulous.

SGLA: So you met in Chicago and were then working in France--how did City come about?

SF: We met up again in France over a bottle of wine in an apartment.

SGLA: Do you remember the bottle?

SF: We were broke back then so it was probably the French equivalent of Boone's Farm.

MSM: We were probably eating some cheap cut of horse meat. (both laughing)

SF: We were talking about doing a restaurant and in a drunken stupor we decided on which city we'd open.

Milliken went back to Chicago, and Feniger went back to LA to work at Ma Maison with Wolfgang Puck after there apprenticeships were completed in France.

SF: LA Eye Works wanted to start up a place where they could get expressos, so they opened City cafe. I started out making soups and sandwiches for a bit. I told Mary Sue to come out for a visit and check it out.

MSM: There were 2 hot plates--it took 3 hours for water to boil JUST to make pasta. I thought, no money and a hot plate?

SF: We finally put in a stove and just cooked our hearts out. We'd go 6 days a week from 7AM to around midnight, and on the 7th day we'd crash in Venice. It was a 10 x 10 kitchen space with 3 sinks and a dishwasher.

On trips to Mexico in 1984, they found their inspiration to open Border Grill in '85, and focus on Mexican flavors.

SGLA: What made you decide to bring back City for a night?

SF: We do it every 4 years, on Leap Day. Old customers are always asking for the plates, and it was a groundbreaking restaurant that was serious about these cuisines. We had put in a tandoor oven back then...

MSM: But not too stuffy. Many people had their first dates, anniversaries--we brought this food to another part of town. People didn't have to go to East LA or other parts of town, they could have it closer to home.

SF: I'm not going to even tell you about the bathroom[ encounters] (laughs)

SGLA: Thanks to you both and I'll see you on the 29th--yes, I have a reservation already.

I attended a preview for the event with the Two Hot Tamales cooking our City classics, and even serving us, too. Here's what's in store for you on the 29th.

You can't always count on bright, and tempting Latin American cocktails at Border Grill: margaritas, mojitos, caipirinhas, etc.

Potato bhujia of Indian inspiration, fried sage leaves, and a refreshing Chinese sausage salad are some of the small bites returning for City Night.

The sauteed halibut cheeks with tomato and Pernod snapped with homemade fettuccine and an intoxicating dose of Pernod. This is a throwback to the early days of City when cooking with Pernod was still second nature to these classically trained tamaleras. It's a fun dish that will have you pressing the bowl to your face in order to capture the last spots of drunken sauce.

Full of comfort, the braised duck with red curry gets sweet, chary lift from grilled eggplant.

The chewy date bar is the kind of straight forward dessert that makes you feel like a kid again, when dessert was fun.

Click here for the full menu.

This is a night to celebrate a landmark restaurant, a pair of chefs who've shown true staying power with no signs of letting up, and to pat our fine city on the asphalt. City Night at Border Grill DTLA--a night to salute our City.

City Night at Border Grill DTLA
4 course prix fixe menu for $75 per person
a la carte in the bar
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

445 S. Figueroa St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071
phone: 213.486.5171 fax: 213.486.5172

1 comment:

Gastronomer said...

I really loved this post! See ya at CITY night!