Q & A With Mary Sue Milliken, Part 2: The Transformation of Ciudad, Lifting the Tablecloths + Some Thoughts on Food Trucks

Mary Sue Milliken
Mary Sue Milliken
Border Grill

In the first part of our interview with Mary Sue Milliken, the chef talked about her travels abroad (fish tacos in the surfing capital of Alaska, chasing dinner in Mongolia), which she somehow has had time to do while, with Susan Feniger, running not one but now two Border Grills and a roving food truck, roasting whole pigs in peoples' backyards, raising a family and a few too many pigeons, and, oh, probably a half dozen other things.

In the second part of the interview, Milliken picks up where she left off -- discussing how to save California, if Jerry Brown is taking a break from restaurant car wash crimes -- and turns closer to home.

Turn the page for Milliken's thoughts on changing over downtown's long-running Ciudad into a second Border Grill. Oh, and some thoughts on food trucks, of course. And check back in later for not one but two recipes. Hope you're hungry.

Squid Ink: So why did you and Susan decide to switch over from Ciudad to Border Grill?

Mary Sue Milliken: Well, we've been playing around with the menu down here for a long time. When we first got here, 12 years ago, it was such a businessman kind of place. You know, booming economy and all the offices filled with suits. It's changed a ton in 12 years. A lot of the offices are half-full, not so many people, and of course the economy has changed immensely. We're just finding that our customers are responding well to sort of Border Grill-leaning food. Food that you share. Sort of a fiesta atmosphere. We're going to lose the white tablecloths. The menu is going to change significantly, but it's not going to change so so so much. We're going to keep some of the real favorites, but we're going to lower the prices and revamp the menu -- that's part of why I was going to Mexico City -- and then, well, people couldn't even pronounce "ciudad." In Southern California that was pretty shocking.

SI: They couldn't pronounce it? We live in a "city." It's largely Spanish-speaking. That's kind of baffling.

MSM: You would be shocked.

SI: Can people pronounce it now?

MSM: No! I mean, I have people saying see-you-DAD. Oh, it's crazy. So anyway, I think it would be really fun to turn it [Ciudad] into a downtown version of Border Grill. We're working with the mural artists -- we've collaborated with them since 1985 -- a new graphic, new tables, we're changing the chairs, we're changing the menu.

SI: Removing the tablecloths. That's metaphorical too, right?

MSM: Exactly. I think it's the right timing for downtown. And for us. And hopefully we'll have our Border Grill at LAX one of these days. [Laughs.] We're still working on it.

SI: So John Sedlar was talking recently about why there aren't many Latino chefs in this town. Why do you think that's the case, assuming you agree?

MSM: Our chef here, Jaime Covarrubias, is Mexican. He worked at City in 1985 as a dishwasher. He was like 85 pounds. Now he's like 285 pounds. He's wonderful. Jaime opened Pasadena; he was the chef in Santa Monica; he went to Vegas, and was there for six or seven years. And when we decided that we wanted to turn this into a Border Grill we asked him if he'd come back. We're really lucky to have him. I think what it is in a lot of ways is culturally, maybe. A lot of the Mexican guys I know who are really talented and love to cook are not spotlight seekers. And maybe that's because the celebrity chef stuff isn't what they grew up with, or it just doesn't register.

SI: Maybe it just has to reach critical mass.

MSM: Or maybe Jaime's kids.

SI: So can we talk about food trucks?

MSM: We're having a blast with the food trucks. We started off by renting one, just as a test, like a year and a half ago. And then after about three months we knew we could make it work financially, and then we decided to buy one. The rental ones, you know, the city makes it quite difficult to jump through every single hoop to make sure you're completely compliant. And Susan and I have always made it a huge priority to follow the rules and get it right. But what's so exciting about these food trucks is that you can get in them and you can take it to places where people are kind of like, landlocked, for whatever reason. I find people get so excited, and we have these little orange stools that we scatter around in front of the truck and people hang out and talk to each other; they talk to us. I feel like we're creating a need.

SI: You're creating a community.

 

MSM: Los Angeles is a hard place to live. You end up just staying in your neighborhood, because of the gridlock of traffic, which now, compared to 20 years ago, is night and day. And I thought it was bad 20 years ago. It just continues to get worse and worse. I remember after the '94 earthquake, my house was right by the Fairfax on-ramp where the freeway collapsed, and I remember feeling that for six months or so while they repaired the freeway it would be gridlocked. And now it's like that and there haven't been any earthquakes. It's like that all the time. I think that we can bring food to people, wherever they are. We did a Little League tournament at Rancho Park, and there were parents and kids, and everybody's there: if you win you stay there for four hours, and all of a sudden a couple trucks show up.

It's coincided with the economic downturn, or whatever we're calling it, and I think that's become a great way to inexpensively serve people. It makes it much simpler. The other thing I love about food trucks is that you have to get your mind around being organized and working like you're in Europe. You know how it is when you're in Europe: all the kitchens are tiny, the apartments are tiny and people take out their trash and it's one little bag. And I love that efficiency. It's a good discipline. We've gotten so big in America; it drives me kind of crazy. The new truck is amazing; it has a freezer, it has two doors. The old one that we rented you'd walk in and you were all stuffed in there. If you have claustrophobia, it's not good.

SI: Yes, food trucks seem to have come about for kind of Darwinistic reasons.

MSM: It's exciting. Because, you know, Roy Choi did this Kogi thing and I'll give him a lot of credit for stepping out there where nobody else was stepping. We'd talked about it for a long time, but we didn't have the guts to do it.

The internet created a kind of strange over-saturation of information that became kind of daunting. So you have people like [Mozza's] Nancy Silverton, who refuses to even have an email account. I mean, I applaud her for it. I wish for it. And I think that's where we have to fine tune the way we create our community and talk to each other so that we can really talk to certain people about certain things rather than talk to everybody. I mean, we have 20,000 people on our email list. And I worry that a lot of them will unsubscribe because one day there will be too many messages. I mean, maybe they're going to an AA meeting, and they don't want to know about our new margaritas!

SI: You think food trucks will stick around, rather than being a fad?

MSM: I definitely think they're going to stick around. I mean there are problems. We would never park in front of another restaurant, and we don't, but it's a new system and it needs to be hammered out. It's bound also to have some problems, and some people aren't going to make it. But it is a great way -- like Ludo and his fried chicken and the Dosa truck and the Grilled Cheese Truck -- I'm thrilled that people can launch. It's like City Cafe was in 1981 when we first opened on Melrose. We had a 10 foot by 10 foot kitchen. We were naive. We were excited. We worked six double-shifts a week, both of us, and we had one dishwasher. We didn't mind; it was great. And I think had a truck been an option, it would have been a great way to get started.

SI: It's like the democratization of food, in a way.

MSM: Yeah, it's accessible. It's a lot of work too. It's not like getting up every morning and going to your kitchen; you've got to get up and go to your kitchen, then you've got to figure out where your kitchen can go to find some sales. And that part is hard. But it's all getting better all the time. Even the little community of people who have the trucks is very open and nice. We share ideas and information all the time. It's been a really fun thing for us -- it's also an amazing marketing tool. I've heard so many people say that they hadn't been to Border Grill in ten years, but they had our crispy avocado taco downtown at Art Walk.

SI: It's like a portable test kitchen.

MSM: We can do a catering event; we can park in somebody's driveway. There's a truck in New York -- I'm on the board of Share Our Strength -- that's bringing food to schools, you know, breakfasts to places. It's something that we're piloting in New York. And it could happen in L.A., in Chicago. When I look at the kitchens in my kids' elementary and middle school, which are just basically a bunch of microwaves; it's not cooking at all. If you could bring food, cooked and hot, and figure out a way [to get it to them]. I think that mobile food is going to be a really big thing.

And be sure to check back later, if you're hungry, for a few recipes from the chef.


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