Where to begin… well, being proud of my Latina heritage has been something instilled in me since the day I was born. My parents came here from Mexico in the early 1960’s and haven’t changed a
day since. That being said, it was my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary, so my siblings and I decided to celebrate at a restaurant and treat them. However, knowing my parents, I couldn’t bring them to a Burger King and call it a day… I needed to find a place that would suit the occasion and be perfect for the people that they are.
I looked for a while to find the perfect restaurant to make us all feel a little more at home. After getting a list of 3 pretty good Mexican restaurants, I decided to go with the most popular one that had the highest reviews. We were going to the Border Grill downtown LA location, and I couldn’t be more excited.
I chose Border Grill because it was different from anywhere I’ve ever been before. At Border Grill, they believe that “modern Mexican cuisine” should be light and healthful, with a heck of a lot of flavor. They favor a fresh take on authentic Mexican fare, featuring traditional meats, poultry, and seafood enhanced by lots of fruits and vegetables, herbs, fresh salsas, rice, beans, and handmade tortillas.
“Too Hot Tamales” – Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Border Grill is the result of a long time partnership between two very talented chefs. Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, and that’s how the restaurant came to be.
It happens to be that it was in French restaurants where Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger first tasted authentic Latin flavors for the first time. While guests were dining on escargot out front, in the back of the house Mary Sue and Susan were discovering the home cooking of Oaxaca and the Yucatan at staff meals prepared by their fellow cooks from Mexico. The dishes that were created in Mexico were as varied and complex as the French fare the chefs were serving out front. They had not tasted ANYTHING like that in any Mexican restaurant in the US simply because nothing like that existed – yet.
In 1985, Mary Sue and Susan (who sometimes refer to themselves as the “Too Hot Tamales”) packed a VW Bug and took a road trip far south of the Mexican border. Never setting foot in a “fine restaurant,” they learned the recipes and techniques of market vendors and home cooks, from street corners in downtown Mexico City to back road family barbecues and taco stands along the beach. When they returned, they opened Border Grill and “applied the same intelligence,” noted Los Angeles Magazine, “to green corn tamales and cactus-paddle tacos that other chefs might to a lobe of foie gras.” Border Grill quickly established a new standard for gourmet Mexican fare in both its first location ono Melrose Avenue and in its current home on 4th Street in Santa Monica, where it moved in 1990. Since then, Border Grill has expanded to restaurants in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino (1999) and The Forum Shops at Caesars (2014), Downtown LA (2010), two gourmet Border Grill food trucks (2009), and a location in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (2013).
Border Grill LA: Parking, Reservations, & Location(s)
Border Grill is located at 445 S Figueroa St in downtown Los Angeles. Getting there is pretty easy, but the parking is a bit confusing, because Border Grill is downtown mainly around office buildings. Your best bet is to leave your car in the parking garage next to the restaurant. Make sure to bring your ticket into Border Grill and get it validated. For those who do not wish to pay the parking fee, there are places to park on the street, but it might take a while to find something.
The atmosphere in Border Grill is more of a “walk-in walk-out” situation. However, if you wish to make a reservation you are most welcome to do so as well. Because I wasn’t sure how crowded the place would or wouldn’t be, I decided to make a reservation in advance by going on their website.
Downtown LA is pretty fun. For any local of the area it may not come as a surprise to you that the restaurant scene is quite competitive. Surrounding almost every street corner there are AT LEAST two competing restaurants that serve pretty much the same thing. Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because the only place that Border Grill can compete with is itself! There is no restaurant that does what they do. Downtown Los Angeles may be big… but when it comes to modern Mexican cuisine there is only room for one.
What I mean when I say that Border Grill competes with itself is that they have several different branches and each one is better than the next. They have 4 locations in LA, and 2 in Las Vegas. One location in LA is the Border Grill truck that they also use for catering. The location that I chose to go to was the one in downtown LA.
When my family and I arrived at Border Grill restaurant early on a Saturday night, we were in awe. We all kinda did something like a “double take” because as soon as we walked in we felt we entered a different realm or something.
Bursting with vibrant colors and catchy music, the ambiance felt close to home for us. The décor was particularly unique as was the architecture of the place. What was cool was that it definitely had Mexican designs to it but at the same time it was modernized. My family and I have never seen anything quite like it. “Es muy bueno” my mother repeated over and over which in Spanish means “it’s so nice!”. You can’t walk into a restaurant like that and not be impressed. We must’ve spent at least 5 minutes just taking it all in. I hadn’t even ordered yet, and already I was impressed in a serious way.
Lights are usually dim and the low hanging lights a long with the red and orange colors on the wall makes inside feel “spicy”. It’s a pretty big place so there are a lot of choices when it comes to seating. We chose to sit in the main room.
I would say that overall I was pretty impressed with the staff. Usually in a restaurant things are so busy and out of control that you practically have to get out of your chair and get a waiter. In Border Grill this was not the case. They made sure to hire a lot of staff so that everyone can be helped with everything they need.
I LOVED our waitress Chelsea. She made the entire experience so enjoyable for my family and I. She was very outgoing, personable, and she had an all around amazing attitude.. Let me reiterate, everyone from our wonderful waitress Chelsea, to the servers to the on site manager at the time were really good at their jobs and made you feel welcome
Believe it or not we were fortunate enough to meet the famous “Hot Tamales”, the 2 co-chefs and co owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. They were so warm and friendly to my family; it was such a great experience!
Executive Chef Michelle Lainez
The Executive Chef at Border Grill downtown LA is Michelle Lainez. Growing up in Southern California, Lainez’s childhood was filled with the rich aromas and bustling zest of a Salvadorian kitchen. With yearly trips back to El Salvador, where she worked the land, butchered meat, and made fresh cheeses, coffee and bread; Chef Lainez gained first-hand experience few other chefs can boast of. Steeped in this rich history, she continued her studies at the California School of Culinary Arts. Lainez puts so much thought and attention into each item on the menu!
Exploring the Border Grill Menu
The Border Grill menu is something pretty special to say the least. Like I previously explained, the menu is Mexican cuisine with a modern healthy twist. The menu has a lot of Spanish words on it so if you don’t understand make sure to ask what your getting before you get it because chances are it’s going to be spicy! To make life a bit easier here’s a break down of the menu:
Tortilla Soup – Roasted tomato chipotle broth • corn tortillas panela cheese • avocado
Chef’s Daily Soup – Seasonal • delicious • chef inspired
Plantain Empanadas – Roasted plantains • organic black beans • poblano • aged cotija
Brisket Taquitos Gf – Slow roasted shredded black angus beef brisket spicy slaw • guacamole • salsa fresca
Peruvian Ceviche – Aji amarillo • ginger • lime • cucumber • avocado • crispy plantains
Baja Ceviche – Shrimp • lime marinated sustainable seasonal fish tomato • jalapeño aioli
Ceviche Duo – Baja ceviche • peruvian ceviche
Hand rolled flour tortillas • mexican cheeses • guacamole • crema
Carne Asada Quesadilla – Grilled marinated steak • caramelized onions • arbol salsa
Citrus Chicken Quesadilla
Grilled citrus marinated chicken • roasted tomatoes serrano chiles • cilantro
Wild Mushroom Quesadilla – Shiitake & oyster mushrooms • huitlacoche roasted garlic • epazote
Enchiladas Y Chilaquiles
Enchiladas De Costillas – Slow braised short ribs • handmade corn tortillas mexican cheeses • roasted tomato guajillo sauce lime cured onions • crema
Chicken Poblano Enchiladas – Mary’s roasted chicken • handmade corn tortillas • poblano crema grilled corn • wild mushrooms • charred poblano chiles
Seasonal Vegetable Chilaquiles – Asparagus • seasonal baby squash • roasted tomato tortilla chips • salsa verde • queso fresco • crema
Yucatan Pork Gf – Achiote pork slow roasted in banana leaves • honey lime yams roasted brussels sprouts • pineapple jicama salsa
Grilled Skirt Steak Gf
Charred corn relish • organic black beans handmade flour tortilla
Chile Relleno – Roasted poblano chiles • manchego, panela, cotija cheeses salsa roja • tomatillo salsa
Three hand pressed corn tortillas • organic rice & black beans
Tacos De Alambre Gf – Grilled rib eye • applewood smoked bacon roasted poblano chiles • mexican cheeses • chimichurri
Tacos De Camarón Gf – Grilled gulf shrimp • mango slaw • aji amarillo aioli • avocado
Lamb Barbacoa Gf – Slow roasted lamb shoulder • jalapeño mint salsita aged cotija cheese • avocado
Grilled Fish Gf – Sustainable seasonal fish • cucumber citrus slaw • pink grapefruit avocado • roasted jalapeño aioli
Tacos De Costillas Gf – Honey cumin glazed boneless pork ribs pineapple jicama salsa • avocado
Carne Asada Gf – Grilled marinated steak • caramelized onions salsa fresca • guacamole
My Food Experience
It was hard to select just one ceviche, although they made it easy by offering a tasting of both with CEVICHE DUO. PERUVIAN CEVICHE – Aji amarillo, ginger, lime, cucumber, avocado, crispy plantains & BAJA CEVICHE – Shrimp, lime marinated sustainable seasonal fish, tomato, jalapeño aioli. They were both really good! I were to choose just one it would definitely be the Baja style because it hade more raw-ish seafood in it. In my opinion the less cooked it is the better!
I also had the CHICKEN PANUCHOS – it had black bean stuffed tortillas, grilled citrus chicken, guacamole, and pickled onions. I wanted to try this since it’s a Yucatán specialty, which I think is so cool. I also recently saw on the Food Network. I was exited to see it on the menu here. Really amazing stuff!
When it was time for my entrée I had ENCHILADAS DE COSTILLAS – Slow braised short ribs, handmade corn tortillas, Mexican cheese, roasted tomato guajillo sauce, lime cured onions and crema. I had to order this since my waitress suggested that this is her absolute favorite enchilada. They were worth every penny.
In my family dessert is the biggest thing. We decided to try their Churros Tots since that’s the #1 item we gravitate towards when we see it offered on a menu. They are infused with dulce de leche and served with sides of cajeta sauce (Mexican caramel). This dish had amazing crunch on them and great flavors. This was the best thing I had all night!
In terms of drinks – My family is not into alcohol, however they did have a pretty diverse and delicious looking cocktail menu. For those who do like beverages with their meal there is a bar that serves just about everything.
Wrapping It All Up
This is definitely an experience that I will not easily forget. Being with my family in such a familiar yet refreshing environment was really a special thing. My family have not enjoyed themselves like that in a long long time. The lights and décor really contributed a lot to the overall feeling of dining. The music was fun and the service was fantastic but most importantly…. THE FOOD WAS INDESCRIBABLE. As downtown LA restaurants go, this is one of the best; I can not believe I only now discovered it. This is a place I will be coming back to again and again for a long time!
THIS is true love!
Next time, we may have to try Baco Merkat – I hear great things about the Mexican-inspired food on their menu, too!