Kajsa Alger sits on a barstool on the back patio of Mud Hen Tavern. Clad in a faded chef’s jacket and jeans, she shakes her ponytailed hair out of her cap and gives it straight.
“They tell you not to fall into the wrong crowd, but I was the wrong crowd,” she says of her younger self. “Once I got my act together, I landed in kitchens and started cooking. It was just a job. But I ended up in some great places, and I stuck with it.”
Great places is an understatement. Alger, now 47, held her own at CITY (where she met Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken) in her early career, followed by the flagship Border Grill in Santa Monica, Zuni Café in San Francisco, Saratoga’s Sent Sovi and more. Today, she’s executive chef and partner at Mud Hen Tavern, as well as co-owner of Blue Window, a takeout shop that shares Mud Hen’s kitchen and its penchant for vegetarian and vegan fare.
Alger says Blue Window was a creative solution to a straightforward dilemma. Due to the lack of midday traffic in its mostly residential neighborhood, Mud Hen Tavern isn’t open for lunch, but that didn’t stop regulars from asking for it. So Alger, Feniger and their team rolled up their sleeves, cut out a window in the Mud Hen kitchen and painted the Highland Avenue–facing wall blue. Within four weeks, Blue Window was serving snacks from its first themed menu.
“We wanted it to be fun — it’s a takeout window — but we also wanted to serve something you wouldn’t expect from such a spot,” Alger explained. “We had this long list of ideas, then we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do it all?” And why not? It’s such a weird thing anyway.”
It was this train of thought that led to the idea of a rotating menu: Every six months, Blue Window’s fare changes completely. The first round focused on Asian food, offering items like barbecued jackfruit báhn mì and watermelon shiso salad. The window’s second round, currently in full swing, is affectionately called “Blue Window Junk." Craveable junk-food standards are turned on their heads in creations such as braised beef cheddar melts and nacho baked potatoes. Everything on the menu can be made vegan — Alger doesn’t eat meat for health and environmental reasons, and she’s proud of how vegetarian- and vegan-friendly her restaurants are.
“Blue Window is more about being accessible to the neighborhood than pushing a vegetarian or vegan agenda,” Alger explains. “That being said, we do want to show that it’s not terribly hard to eat good plant-based food. And we do it in a way that welcomes meat eaters, nonmeat eaters and everyone in between. It’s not this separatist thing.”
Other of the chef's junk-food visions at Blue Window include a chili cheese Frito tamale and falafel-battered onion rings topped with thick olive honey and paired with a spicy aioli. There’s also “spaghetti yo's,” which Alger calls a “kick-ass pasta dish.” All dishes, no matter the theme of the menu, are $7. Come August, diners will bid adieu to Blue Window Junk. The next theme is yet to be determined.
As we scarf down the vegan version of Blue Window’s cheddar melt — it’s stuffed with caramelized sunchokes, pickles and Daiya cheese — the conversation wanders. Alger reveals her quirky obsession with prison food — she’s joked about making it a theme for a future Blue Window menu — and how she’s come full circle with Blue Window, staffing the kitchen with at-risk youth through partnerships with L.A. Kitchen and St. Joseph Center.
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“There can’t be a weak link in a kitchen, so these kids have to be good,” she said. “But the need to step up can be just what they need to get their life back on track. That’s what cooking did for me.”
Blue Window, 742-B N. Highland Ave.; bluewindowla.info.