“Did you ever see the two women?” Susan Feniger asks. “Schweddy Balls,” chimes in Mary Sue Milliken. “That was us!” they exclaim in unison. The chef duo is referring to a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch that may have been poking fun at the KCRW show they started, Good Food. The two are dressed in colorful Border Grill embroidered chef’s coats at a corner table in the 26-year-old, mammoth restaurant on Fourth Street in Santa Monica.
“We thought we had arrived then. We were being parodied by Saturday Night Live!” Feniger says. The chefs, who had opened their first successful restaurant, City Cafe, in 1981, followed by the original Border Grill in 1985, clearly “arrived” long before the late-night comedy show poked fun at their earnest enthusiasm for all things culinary. And even with the recent announcement of their landmark Border Grill Santa Monica closing after 26 years, the two chefs show no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Along with continuing to run their downtown and LAX Border Grill locations, the pioneering chefs have a new project in the works. What exactly it is, they can't say. But it will likely be in a smaller location, a reflection of L.A.'s changing restaurant culture.
“The culinary landscape of Los Angeles has completely changed and the traffic has changed. You used to have to drive, there were destination restaurants, like this one, a big restaurant. I think that’s changed a lot because each neighborhood now has really cool places. You can get great food and you don’t have to fight traffic to do it,” Feniger says.
“Our career has always been about, what’s the next interesting thing? What’s that next thing that excites us?’” Feniger says. This modus operandi has worked out well for the pair. When they opened the original Border Grill on La Brea in 1985, the kind of vibrant, sophisticated, authentic Mexican food that excited them was nowhere else to be found and the city was hungry for it. What exactly was around in L.A. before they opened Border Grill? Milliken says, “A lot of gloppiness, beans loaded with cheese and sour cream, very old-school Mexican-American food that was very toned down in any kind of real flavor.”
“Tamales that weren’t light and fluffy,” Feniger adds. She says no one was making their own tortillas at the time, except for a small taqueria at Melrose and Western called Anelcy’s, where Feniger and Milliken were regulars. After lunch service at City Cafe, the two would wait in line for dozens of tiny little soft carnitas tacos to bring back to their staff.
“We were in love with it. It gave us this awareness of how the cuisine was really different than what was at Lucy’s or El Coyote or El Cholo. It really had us think, there’s something here, something fresher, more flavorful, with lots of sparkly citrus, chilies and cilantro, and not just yellow cheese and sour cream and lard,” Milliken says.
The tiny taqueria in East Hollywood wasn’t the only thing that inspired Border Grill. In the early ’80s, the two chefs took a trip with a City Cafe employee to visit his family in Mexico.
“We went to his family’s house in Mexico City, and every morning we would go with his mom to the markets, get all of these products that we’ve never seen, come back and cook with her. That’s how we sort of started to learn about the Mexican kitchen,” says Milliken.
Those aforementioned products that they’d never seen turned out to be the inspiration, challenge and the ultimate reason for Border Grill's success.
“You couldn’t get any Mexican ingredients here,” Feniger says. “No one here at any restaurant had heard of anything like achiote, or tamarind or chipotles. They weren’t around. So we had to work very, very closely with L.A. Specialty [a local wholesale produce distributor]. It wasn’t L.A. Specialty at the time, but they were our produce company, to try to figure out how do we get some of these products so we could try to do what we thought was authentic Mexican food.”
“You couldn’t get chipotle chilies. When we came back, we brought some. We smuggled them in our suitcase,” Milliken says.
Apparently, the smuggling was worth it because the original Border Grill was so popular that they were forced to move to the larger Santa Monica location in 1990. “We were so busy, bursting at the seams. We had a whole bank of home refrigerators in the alley,” Milliken says.
The Santa Monica space still has the same original wood tables and interior design, with colorful paintings by artist friends Sue Huntley and Donna Muir. But the neighborhood has evolved around it.
“It was really a sleepy little beach town with this weird little old department store where REI is now. There was a Woolworth's on the Promenade. It had just become a walking street. No one was there. Nobody wanted to be there. There was a huge empty parking lot behind us. Everything has changed so drastically that it’s almost like a whole different city,” Milliken says. That said, the changing neighborhood had nothing to do with their decision to move, and they will most likely stay in the area.
But smuggling peppers across the border was just a tiny part of the careers of these two revolutionary chefs. It all began in Chicago at the famed Le Perroquet restaurant in 1978.
“I was the first woman. Susan was hired quite quickly after,” Milliken says. “The owner was like, 'Wow, this girl works circles around the boys and she’s half the price.'”
“'Here comes another sucker!'” Feniger jokes.
“But I had to fight my way in. The guy did not want to hire me. He was very resistant,” Milliken says of being an aspiring female chef. “It’s definitely harder. When we were coming up through the ranks, we were the only women. You didn’t allow yourself to see discrimination or to feel it, because you just had to put every bit of energy into your job in order to be better than the next guy next to you. You couldn’t just dwell on that. But subconsciously, you had to have seen that there just weren’t women rising up anywhere. That was the big impetus to us saying, 'Fuck this. We’re just going to get our own restaurant even if it has to be tiny.' City Cafe was 900 square feet. It had eight tables and 12 seats at the bar.”
“And two hibachis in the parking lot!” Feniger adds.
“So after all of the sacrifice of going to chef school and working in France and all that, we settled for this tiny opportunity just to be our own bosses and not have any men calling the shots,” Milliken says. “Because honestly, when you think about it, why would we have done that after all of that training and all that sacrifice?”
Five cookbooks, almost 400 episodes of a successful Food Network show (Too Hot Tamales), several award-winning restaurants, a legendary radio show and 35 years later, it certainly seems to make sense now.